The Phantom Sabertooths of Barstow

Hey there every people!

Nestled within the heart of the Mojave Desert is the small town of Barstow. This place of 15,000 people is not favorably thought of by some and most just pass through on their way to Las Vegas. But outside of Barstow lies one of the great natural treasures in southern California: Rainbow Basin.

This area, under the stewardship of the BLM, is home to spectacular geology with dozens of faults creating an awe-inspiring landscape of tilted rocks with alternating layers of green, brown, and red. But this place is also known for fossils. Since the early 20th century it has been a hotbed of paleontological activity. It is the type locality for the Barstovian North American Land Mammal Age. To date hundreds of fossil have been found, with more being found every year. Thanks to the workings of the San Bernardino County Museum and the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology (as well as it’s correlation with parts of the Caliente Formation here on the Central Coast), I have fallen in love with this Paleontologist/Geologist’s dream come true. But a mysterious creature has haunted me for about as long as I have been fascinated by it. And today I can finally put the specter to rest.

It began long ago when I attended my first Fossil Fest at the Raymond Alf Museum. I was drooling over (as I usually do when I go there) the cast skeleton of the bear dog Amphicyon mounted over a fossil track way. A woman walked up and began marveling at it as well. Someone started talking with her (I assumed he was a docent) and explained how it was a top predator. I chimed in and said how the dogs and cats of period were simply put to shame by such an awesome beast. The guy then said that even the saber toothed cats of the period were no match for it. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. What sabertooths? The only cat I knew of from Barstow was Pseuaelurus. And he was no saber tooth! I didn’t think much of it then and went back to enjoying the festival.

But as the years dragged on the phantom sabertooth kept hounding me. Fliers put out by the San Bernardino County Museum for trips to and lectures on Barstow always mentioned saber toothed cats in their usual list of extinct animals. I was often hearing references to the phantom sabertooth but never did they mention who. I was finding nothing on the internet. It was driving me nuts! So finally on the 2013 Lake Manix trip I asked Eric Scott. His response:

“Blah blah blah blah fossil horses blah blah blah Tommy’s Burgers blah blah blah blah then Kathleen said ‘ewww, that’s not a pineapple!’ blah blah blah Pseudaelurus may have had elongated and slightly flattened canines like a clouded leopard blah blah blah blah Tommy’s Burgers blah blah blah…”

Interesting. So like a clouded leopard Pseudaelrus may have had elongated but still fairly conical teeth. Sounds pretty sweet, but I ran into a snag: all specimens i have found pictures of have short conical teeth like the cougar it’s so often compared to:

The beautifally preserved skull of Pseudaelurus from Barstow. From the collections of the San Bernardino County Museum

A lower jaw of Pseudalurus from Barstow. From the collections of the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology

Skull of Pseudaelurus from New Mexico, with a conical tooth design. From Rothwell, 2001

A tooth tentatively assigned to Pseudaelurus from Barstow. From the collections of the Raymond Alf Museum of Paleontology

Even if it did have longer clouded leopard-like teeth, I doubt anyone would confuse it with a sabertooth. And on the 2013 Barstow trip Eric had nothing to tell me. It seemed I was going to be tormented by this faceless spectral sabertooth for all time. But not long after the trip, I had a revelation during one of my notorious random google searches. The answer to the riddle of the Phantom Sabertooth of Barstow had been under my nose all these years.

A long time ago I came across an anthology of publications from the 2006 Desert Symposium. I rifled through it but it was soon buried in my ever expanding library of pdf files. And so it was eventually forgotten. While out in Rainbow Basin Eric and Kathleen passed around a biostratigraphic chart of the Barstow fauna. I only took a cursory glance at it as I was trying to set up a shot for my photography class. And in yet another google search I came across the symposium collection again. Curiously, it came up in a search for “Barstow sabertooth”. It probably didn’t mean much (in these searches, two widely separated, unrelated words could cause the paper to appear in the search results) but I checked it out anyway. And lo and behold there was the exact same biostratigraphy chart from the trip! I started scouring right away, looking for any unfamiliar names. At first I didn’t find anything, just the usual suspects. But then I stumbled across a name, tucked away between Pseudaelurus intrepidus and Hyphippus affinis, with a temporal span so small it’s no wonder it’s so easy to miss. It simply said “Nimravides sp.” I couldn’t believe it. I had finally found the identity of the Phantom Sabertooth of Barstow! But this didn’t mean it was truly over.

Megafaunal biostratigraphy from the Barstow formation of California. From Pagnac and Reynolds, 2006

Nimravides? He once lived in Barstow? I had no idea and this may be part of the reason why it remained in the shadows for so long. True cats didn’t arrive in America until about 15 mya. Before that cat-like nimravids filled the role. I have found little about that group from this time period. And since Barbaurofelis came here from Asia, I had thought the group had died out here until its arrival. And the big sabertooths that we know so well like Megenterion, Machairodus, and Nimravides, didn’t show up (again, from Asia, I’m told) until the late Miocene, a few million years after the Barstovian ended. Now when Nimaravides is mentioned, it’s always referring to the lion-size badass of the late Miocene, known from some very good specimens found in the Midwest. But never before had I heard of it from the middle Miocene.

A skull of Nimravides at the American Museum of Natural History. Image from Wikipedia

Jaw of Nimravides from Kansas

Possible jaws of Nimravides from Red Rock Canyon State Park, California. It may be something else; Xiaoming Wang said they’re still working it out. From an article by Dave Whistler

Another clue may be in the brief description offered in the paper. They say the species of Nimravides (They can’t be too specific, probably because there haven’t been enough fossils found so far to allow precise identification) was small in size, between a lynx and a small cougar. I’d say we’re dealing with an animal roughly 35 to 100 pounds. That’s barely on par with Pseudalurus, who is described as the size of a cougar or leopard. While a sabertooth, it’s hard to imagine how it can compete with the somewhat larger (and much more common) Pseudaelurus, the numerous dogs ranging from fox to wolf, and the giant bear dog. And the other clue may be in its presence on the chart:

Check out “Nimravides sp.” highlighted in red. From Pagnac and Reynolds, 2006

Look how short its temporal span is. Does this mean that all fossils of this animal were found in one very narrow strip of the formation? I don’t think so. Look at all the species’ time ranges. They are much longer,  spanning hundred of thousands of years. This is allowed thanks to decades of geological and paleontological research, with hundreds of specimens found. And Nimravides’ span is really no longer than a couple of other species on there. It is much more likely that this animal is known from very few specimens, maybe even just one. I have not been able to find it, with  the Raymond Alf, San Bernardino County, UCMP, and American Museum’s online databases turning up nothing (not surprising, given how bad the database is for the later). Or maybe there were more than one specimen and perhaps they were all found in the same quarry, which could account for the limited time range. It’s possible, but until these few specimens get published (in the scientific literature or otherwise) it may be a while before the answer comes to light.

And with the close of this mystery my understanding of Barstow fossils grows a little more. And my fascination with them even more so. My phantom critter has a name now and yet it remains elusive. The single or few specimens known are currently MIA, hiding in some forgotten corner down in the depths of a sprawling museum. Not only that, but I have found no mention of any specimens found, so I guess no others have been found since the ones barely mentioned in the biostratigraphy graph. Maybe one day i might be able to go to Barstow and try to pick up his trail. But it seems that for the foreseeable future, “Nimravides sp.” will remain the Phantom Sabertooth of Barstow.

Till next time!

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