The Phantom Materializes

Hey there every peoples!

I have been hella busy this summer! A neighbor’s wedding, trip to Sacramento, camping up at Mono Lake, enjoying some summer blockbusters. Yeah, a lot on my plate. Me and my associate have also been busy trying to get things rolling on the Project. We are even putting some public displays together. But the latest piece of my very busy summer had to do with identifying a fossil we found. And along the way, i also had an opportunity to finally meet someone: The Phantom Sabertooth of Barstow.

It is very  frustrating trying to get information on something. This is no doubt due in large part to the closed nature of the academic sphere. Some like Andy Farke and the folks over at SV-POW are fighting the good fight to make research open access. While papers are starting to be published open to the public, much of what has been published in the past remains shut off (if it was even digitized). And sometimes information is just not there because they either don’t respond or decide to lecture you instead of just giving you the information you can use to educate yourself. As a result i am often forced to work with an incomplete dataset. So it should be no surprise that i get things wrong. A good example would be the Phantom Sabertooth of Barstow. I stupidly assumed that just because i couldn’t find anything on it that it was an obscure taxa (it was Nimravides, but i knew it only from a blip on a biostratigraphy chart). Eric Scott at the San Bernardino County Museum pointed out that this was not the case. In fact, he kindly offered to bring me face to face with the Phantom.

It turns out that the SBCM has (as far as anyone can tell) the only remains of Nimravides from Barstow. I guess i wasn’t wrong about everything. I had first postulated that perhaps the reason the Barstow Nimravides was so obscure was either it was known from either a single specimen or just one locality. Turns out i was half right. Eric was nice enough to provide me with a paper written way back in 2002. It was the thesis of one Ian Duncan Browne and it deals with the mammals of the Robin’s Quarry, a site that occurs later in the Barstow beds. It yielded many spectacular fossils of herbivores and carnivores, including their prized skull of Pseudaelurus. And among them were the fossils of Nimravides.

They are not much, falling in with the usual trend of Barstow’s scrappy fossil remains. Most prominent, perhaps, is a mostly complete lower jaw:

A mostly complete lower jaw. Sorry Eric, i couldn’t remember all the technical jargon. Maybe if i was somehow immersed in it I could…

Also there is a right maxila (upper jaw) with the telltale sabertooth):

The right upper jaw, complete with cute little sabertooth!

Also included were a left maxilla and premaxilla, a zygomatic process (cheek bone), a rib fragment, and a few other odd bits. Whether these all came from the same animal is hard to say, but based on what i say, there would probably be at least two individuals. This meager collection of fossils represents the only record of Nimravides in Barstow. That’s why it was only a blip on on that biostratigraphy chart. That’s why there almost no mention of it anywhere. A few specimens from a single locality. But what little has been found can tell us a few things. The first is the age. According to Browne, the Robin’s Quarry lies in the upper member of the Bartow formation, estimated to be 13.8 million years old. It’s presence here suggests Nimravides may have been late to the party. Indeed, Browne says that this is the earliest temporal occurrence of the genus. Basically all other Nimravides are known from the late Miocene and early Pliocene. So this would be the first Nimravides period. Ad undoubtedly a new species.

Something else is the size. The later, better known species of Nimravides are the size of lions. But you may have noticed from the photos that this guy is tiny. In life he may have been no bigger than a bobcat (dare i call it a… toy sabertooth?). But saberooths and their copycats (no pun intended) are well known for being heavily muscled brutes who wrestled big prey to the ground before dispatching them with their lengthy fangs. But while they are flat and serrated, the Barstow Nimravides had rather short canines, looking like the milk fangs of another sabertooth’s cubs. Perhaps Nimravides took down comparatively small  prey; that is, animals smaller than the preferred prey of the other carnivores but still larger than itself. It may have gone after pronghorns or maybe the young of the smaller species of horses and camels. Unfortunately, until more is more is found we don’t have anyway of knowing just what this little terror was capable of.

A phantom is often something that has a fleeting presence. Or it may be something seen sporadically. I greatly appreciate Eric’s effort to make the phantom real for me, but i feel as is he will continue be a spectral cat for years to come. So far all we have is some bones and jaws from one locality in a geo/paleo sequence lasting roughly 3 million years. It’s not much to go on. Just how big was this animal? What did it hunt? What was it capable of hunting? How did it move about the open woodlands and floodplains of Miocene Barstow? Just how different was it from it’s descendants? Some of these may be answered by the careful analysis of the Robbin’s Quarry specimens, but the whole picture will only be made clear when/if we ever find more fossils. I got to see it with my own eyes. But i think it will be some time before before Nimravides can shed its title as the Phantom Sabertooth of Barstow.

Till next Time!

2 thoughts on “The Phantom Materializes

  1. You might find this abstract interesting as well.

    Browne, I. D., 2005, A case for the reassignment of the Barstovian felid Pseudaelurus marshi to the genus Nimravides: Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, v. 25 (3 suppl.), p. 40A.

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