Sabertooth cats, giant armadillos, sloths: Largest S.C. cache of Ice Age fossils discovered in Giant Cement quarry

Sabertooth cats, giant armadillos, sloths: Largest S.C. cache of Ice Age fossils discovered in Giant Cement quarryBy The T&D StaffThe largest cache of Ice Age fossils ever discovered in South Carolina has been unearthed in Giant Cement Company’s Harleyville limestone quarry in Dorchester County.Found by hobby collector Rick Carter last spring, the ”bone bed” of Pleistocene Epoch, or Ice Age, animals, is being excavated by a paleontologist from the South Carolina State Museum, where many of the fossils will be cleaned and ultimately displayed. Giant Cement Co., which has an active limestone quarrying operation, has temporarily ceased mining in this area of the quarry in order to allow this scientific pursuit to continue.The site contains a wealth of remains of the megafauna, or large animals, of prehistoric South Carolina, according to Jim Knight, natural history curator for the museum.In addition to the tooth enamel of a mastodon, the bones of “ground sloths, horses, giant armadillos, sabertooth cats and two kinds of camels are in abundance,” says Knight, who is leading a dig that includes paleontologists from the Smithsonian and several universities in the South.”This find is important for a number of reasons,” Knight says. “First, there has never been a Pleistocene find like this reported from South Carolina before. Also, this find gives us some of the bones that aren’t typically collected — the long bones, for instance — in abundance.”The Pleistocene period started about 1.8 million years ago and ended about 10,000 years ago. The fossils found are about 19,000 years old.Knight is excited by all of the discoveries at the Giant Cement quarry, but is most delighted with the finding of two sabertooth cat skulls, ”because few animals from the Pleistocene are as scary or as lethal as the saber cats. They’re pretty rare, except at California’s la Brea tar pits, because they were at the top of the food chain.”Another important aspect of the find is the location of the animals, especially one particular ground sloth, found 80 to 90 percent complete. While most Ice Age bones have been found by divers where the bones have been washed over time into rivers, obscuring their geologic context, ”these bones are in their geologic context, in sands, gravels and clays, so this sloth is lying about where it died. It probably died nearby and washed a few feet away before decomposing completely.”Finding animals in their proper contexts is important to scientists because ”they haven’t been disturbed. In the stratigraphy (the layer of soil the specimen is found in) you can get information that you can’t get from a dive specimen off the bottom of a river,” Knight says. For example, ”if it’s associated with a particular kind of plant material, as this one is, that’s an additional source of information in helping date the animal and develop an idea of what its environment was.”An unusual aspect of the discovery is that while there is evidence that some of the animals were old adults, most were very young, adolescents or younger. “This makes us believe that they may have been killed in a storm event, perhaps a hurricane. The healthy adults would have escaped, but the very old and young would not have.”The find is so large that parts of it will be shared with other museums, such as the Smithsonian. Knight says it will dramatically increase the scope and breadth of the State Museum’s natural history paleontology collection. “It will allow us to build a more complete picture of life in Pleistocene South Carolina than we ever had before.”It may be months before the last of the hundreds of bones are completely recovered from the site, says Knight, adding that some of the fossils will soon turn up in the museum’s Specimen Preparation Area, and he hopes they eventually will be seen in a Pleistocene exhibit on the natural history floor.

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