Wednesday, 23 October 2019


During the last ice age, huge cats bigger than an African lion prowled Alberta, including the fearsome beast commonly known as the "sabre-toothed tiger."

The proper name for the extinct predator with foot-long, serrated knife-like canines is Smilodon fatalis.

Up until the discovery of the fossil from Medicine Hat, Alberta, the species had never been found further north than Idaho. Or so it was thought...

A few years ago, a few small fossils caught the eye of researcher Ashley Reynolds as she was rummaging through the drawers at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The drawer was part of a treasure trove of 1,200 specimens collected in the 1960s by University of Toronto paleontologist C.S. Churcher and his team. The specimens were collected over many field seasons along the bluffs of the South Saskatchewan River near Medicine Hat.

Churcher was a paleontologist with a keen eye and a delightful man. I had the very great pleasure of listening to many of his talks out at UBC and at a few VanPS meetings in the mid-2000s. "Rufus" was a thoroughly charming storyteller and shared many of his adventures from the field. He moved out to the West Coast for his retirement but his keen love of the science kept him giving talks to enthralled listeners keen to hear about his survey of the Dakhleh Oasis in the Western Desert of Egypt, geomorphology, stratigraphy, recent biology, Pleistocene and Holocene lithic cultures, insights learned from Neolithic Islamic pottery to Roman settlements.

The specimens he had collected had been roughly sorted but never examined in detail. Reynolds, who was researching the growth patterns and life histories of extinct cats by looking at their bones, decided to look more carefully at what fossils Churcher had actually found, keen to add them to her research. And what a find she made!

One of the fossils labelled "Smilodon" was too small a piece to be identified. But another, a bone from the ancient cat's right front paw, was identical other Smilodon bones from the same part of the body, and was positively identified as Canada's first Smilodon. CBC did a nice write up on her discoveries. Read more on this story here:…/technology/sabre-toothed-cat-1.5305505