COMAL COUNTY, Texas (KXAN) – The remains of two possibly prehistoric cats were recovered this week from deep with Natural Bridge Caverns in Comal County, just north of San Antonio. The remains of the two small cats were found more than a mile from the natural entrance of the cavern. Paw prints left on the cave floor were found nearby.
“They’re ancient. They’ve been in this cave for a very long time,” said Paleontologist John Moretti, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas in Austin. He was among the five-man expedition sent to recover the skeletons, recruited after similar research he did at Inner Space Caverns.
The exact age of the cat skeletons is unknown. Fossilization on the bones indicates they could be thousands of years old.
According to Moretti, the skeletal remains were found in two rooms within Natural Bridge Caverns: the Inferno Room and the Dungeon. In a tunnel, connecting the two rooms, paw prints were found.
“It seems almost hard to believe, and why would they be coming into the cave?” said Brad Wuest, President and CEO of Natural Bridge Caverns. Wuest led the expedition deep into the cave, which required crawling through a tight passage and rappelling into the two rooms.
“How did these wild cats get that far back into the cave? Did they actually come in from the natural entrance and travel in absolute total darkness?” Wuest said.
Discovering the first cat skeleton
The first cat skeleton was discovered in 1963 by caver Orient Knox. “They squeezed back through this long tunnel, tunnel-like passage, and it led them to this, this pitfall drop into a huge room,” Moretti said.
The skeleton was found in the Dungeon room. The tunnel above had a hole in it, called Kitty Drop 1, that led to a small room with the floor at an angle which led into another hole, Kitty Drop 2, that then opened into the Dungeon.
“Right at the base of the pit, there was a skeleton of a small Wildcat,” Wuest said. That skeleton was recovered and studied at UT.
“Fast forward to current era, we went back to the Dungeon,” Wuest said. His team went back to the room and found more skeleton fragments in the room. They then went to the adjoining Inferno room.
“It’s a big chamber that actually was not even showing up on the map of the caverns. And while we were there, we found more bones in that chamber.”
In the tunnel connecting the rooms, they found the cat tracks. “There’s cat tracks preserved in the sediment in places where people have not stepped,” Moretti said.
A thin layer of sediment covers the tracks, which takes a long period of time to develop. “They look like they were made yesterday. And we can easily just smear them away.”
“The question is, are they is that the same specimen from the bones that were taken out back in 63? And they just didn’t collect all the bones? Or is it another individual?” Wuest said.
Exploring the depths in search of cats
The four-day expedition involved a lot of gear and a lot of crawling. The two chambers are a mile from the known, natural entrance to the cavern. An entrance created for tours of Natural Bridge Caverns is a little closer and shortens the expedition.
Reaching the cats requires a little extra work. “There’s one very tight passage called the birth canal, where we have to take off our packs, and pretty much lay down, push our bags in front of us as we pull ourselves along on our bellies,” Moretti said.
Wuest said that the team brought the majority of their gear, like lights and rappelling equipment, with them on the first day and left it there so they wouldn’t have to drag it with them every day. Every piece of equipment has to be carried in and they have to leave space in the packs for the fossils.
Sterilized bags and gloves are used to collect the fossils. Photographs are taken of all the paw prints.
Wuest used a sketchbook to document where every fossil and paw print was found. The Inferno room is massive, ten stories high and several meters across. While the Dungeon is also large, it is long, with lots of nooks and crannies to search.
How will the cat fossils and photos be used?
Photos of the tracks will be used to track the cats’ movements. “Sometimes the claws are in sometimes you can see the track, kind of slip,” Moretti said.
The recovered bones will be radiocarbon dated and the DNA will be tested. Because the bones were in the cave, despite fossilization, proteins in the bones survived.
“What you need to date a bone is actually a protein that we make when we’re alive,” Moretti said the cave preserves this.
“It’s like keeping a sandwich in your refrigerator as opposed to on the counter, right? It’s going to go funny way sooner on the counter.”
Moretti said that the cats will give them a better understanding of wildlife in the Hill Country thousands of years ago.
Can you see the fossils and tracks?
While the fossils are being removed and will be studied by Moretti at UT Austin, the paw prints will remain. You can even visit them.
Natural Bridge Caverns offers adventure tours deeper into the caverns. They are a little intense and involve crawling and climbing. One of the tours will take visitors to the paw prints.