Evidence for a top predator of the past

This week Museum Manager, Ros Westwood looks at early evidence for some terrifying local fauna!

Sabre tooth and mastodon diaroma

Sabre-toothed cat and mastodon diaroma at Buxton Museum

Last week there was another amazing natural history programme on BBC, following lions in the drought torn Kalahari Desert in Botswana tracking equally emaciated elephants. Nature is grim in both tooth and claw, and everything needs to eat. No, I did not watch it – in programmes like this I always want the targeted ‘dinner’ to survive, and prefer not see the blood and gore of the kill, but I know it cannot be so, but it did make me think.

You see, that same tale was being lived out 1.9 million years ago in a local landscape, in fact not four miles north of Buxton near the village of Dove Holes. I can’t comment about the weather at the time – but I suggest the area was more like a savannah grass land, with less rain than we are familiar with.

But the events that occurred were similar, even if the protagonists may have been a little different – sabre tooth cats rather than African lions and mastodons not elephants. It may not have been so hot and parched, but the evidence of the Victory Quarry assemblage suggests the story of cats as top predators seeking the easiest prey.

How do we know this? Museums are places of story and memory, and this story goes back to 1901 when young Master Hick (we do not know his first name) was assisting his father at the quarry. When the dust from the charges settled, the boy found a collection of bones and teeth among the scatter of rocks. He brought these to the local museum which was then at Buxton Town Hall. The curator Mr Hill called on Professor Boyd Dawkins at Manchester Museum to help identify them.

With this evidence, Boyd Dawkins could explain that the plains of this ancient landscape were home to hyena, mastodon (adult and juvenile), mammoth, rhino, horse and deer but the lead carnivore was the sabre tooth cat.  After much consideration, Boyd Dawkins identified a piece of tibia and two teeth as belonging to as Homotherium sainzelli Amyard. Further research in recent years by Dr Ross Barnett at the University of Durham has reattributed this recommending it should now be recognised as H. crenatidens.


Tibia of a Sabre-toothed Cat found at Dove Holes.

Boyd Dawkins declared these to be “the very oldest collection of remains of animals from caves which have been met with in the whole world”.  This claim continues to have relevance, with Dr Barnett asserting in 2010 that it currently represents the earliest appearance of Homotherium in the British Isles. Although Boyd Dawkins described this as Pliocene, the age has been revised and is now considered as Early Pleistocene, but to the museum visitor that is still a very, very long time ago.

The bones are on display at Buxton Museum and the teeth are at Manchester Museum.   As part of collections in the Landscape we are investigating the possibility of establishing a better date for the assemblage by examining the dentition of the baby mastodon molars.

The Victory Quarry site is now owned by Derbyshire County Council and is managed as a fishing lake, but beware, the ghosts of the sabre-toothed cats may still prowl around the rocks.