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Ancient bones still thrill: Saber-toothed cat remains may turn up

Friday, July 1, 2011 - 10:25 am

Today marked the final day of what was supposed to be the last week of archaeological digging ever at the Pipe Creek Junior Quarry's Sinkhole near Marion, a source of bones dating back millions of years. However, because the site has so much material to be processed, more digs are planned.

In 1996, Irving Materials workers noticed bone fragments in sedimentary muck that was dug from a 50-foot-deep pocket in a limestone deposit. In 1998, paleontologists from IPFW and the Indiana State Museum began their first dig.

The Pipe Creek Junior Sinkhole is now considered by various sources as “one of the most important paleontological sites east of the Mississippi River due to preservation.” Thousands of bones belonging to giant tortoises, camels as large as giraffes, bears, dogs, rodents and big cats have been found at the site. One especially rare find was that of a teleoceras, or water rhinoceros. The remains in the sinkhole are from the Pliocene Era, which dates from about 5.3 to 1.8 million years ago.

In a news release about the dig, IPFW geology professor James Farlow said, “For this final dig, I am especially hopeful we will find a saber-toothed (cat). We know that they existed in the U.S. during this time period, but they've never been found in Indiana.” It turns out that Farlow was extremely optimistic about the dig and thought all the sediment would be examined, but there is a lot more sediment to sift through.

While discovering saber-toothed remains is Farlow's dream, he said he and the other diggers were “looking for whatever we can get.”

Typically the sinkhole produces remains of smaller animals, so the team is hoping to find remains of larger creatures.

One exciting find during the week was a camel's toe bone. By the appearance of it, Farlow knew the animal was not fully mature when it died. It is possible this particular species of camel had a size similar to that of a modern-day giraffe.

Other finds of the week included the lower jaw of a small carnivore and a peccary's tooth that was in two pieces and were found separately. The most common finds at the site are remains that belonged to frogs and turtles. Most of the fossils found are donated to the Indiana State Museum.

During the past week, volunteers from the Indiana State Museum, IPFW and Taylor University have helped dig.

When asked how the week went, Farlow said “pretty well. We had good weather and we processed a lot of sediment. We average one or two good finds in a day and a lot of little ones.”

Visits from 2003 to 2005 were made frequently thanks to an abundance of funding. However, funding has been much more difficult to secure recently, so Farlow has usually done about one weeklong dig a year since 2005.

Because there is a lack of funding and much more work to be done, Farlow will sort through this week's findings and make plans for future digs. He has also consistently published his findings and will possibly continue for another decade.