Harleyville saber-toothed cat

The skull of a 450,000-year-old saber-toothed cat excavated from a Harleyville quarry will go back on exhibit in August at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. South Carolina State Museum/Provided

The cat about to show its head again was as big as a Siberian tiger. Its skull — fangs and all — was found on the South Carolina coast.

The skull of a saber-toothed cat goes back on exhibit Aug. 25 at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia some 15 years after it was pulled, astonishingly intact, from a limestone quarry near Harleyville.

The exhibit, recognizing the museum's 30th anniversary, takes place as the University of Kansas is scheduled to release new findings from a study of saber-tooth fossils across the country, including those at the museum.

The saber-tooth isn't usually thought of as an ancient Carolina critter. But they weren't strangers here.

The Harleyville skull is one of two pulled from the site of an ancient riverbed in a dense cluster of fossil bones and teeth from the cats and other species, said Dave Cicimurri, a museum curator.

The 450,000-year-old beast hunted along what became South Carolina during one of the ice ages, preying on an array of now-extinct-here animals that included llamas, tapirs and giant sloths.

The cats weighed up to 600 pounds — about four times the size of the Florida panther long rumored to still be found in the Palmetto State. Their forearms are thought to have been so strong they literally tackled prey rather than grabbing them with the huge teeth.

Among other gnarly little bits of speculation about these beasts: they only became extinct as recently as 10,000 years ago and in their last centuries might well have been man-eaters. 

Teeth also have been found in Summerville, on Folly Beach and Edisto Island, among other locations. A tooth is on exhibit at the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston, 202 Calhoun St., along with a reconstructed skeleton of a similar saber-tooth.

The intact skull was a rare find in an environment where the remains of surface animals tended to be scavenged or break down, Cicimurri said.

"You're more likely to find a piece here and there," he said.

Along the South Carolina coast, fossil finds tend to be giant sharks teeth, whales, alligators or similar species that were evidently more easily preserved underwater. 

"Land carnivore fossils are really rare," said Ashby Gale of Charleston Fossil Adventures. He's out searching or digging daily and has only found two cat tusks in his career, one on Folly Beach and the other on Edisto Island.

The skull "is such a beautiful, beautiful fossil," he said.

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Science and environment reporter. Author of Washing Our Hands in the Clouds.