News and analysis about energy in California with an eye toward renewables.

Sabertooth Cat Fossils Found on Solar Energy Plant Construction Site

Sabre-toothed cat bones found on the Desert Sunlight site | Photo: BLM

A fossil deposit helped guide the gigantic Rio Mesa solar project in Riverside County to likely extinction in January. Now, more paleontological specimens have been found during construction of the Desert Sunlight solar project, 60 miles to the west and surrounded by Joshua Tree National Park, and a federal agency seems pretty happy about it.

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The bones, found during digging of a trench at the site in the Chuckwalla Valley, were first suspected to belong to the extinct American lion, one of the largest cats known to have existed. But paleontologists at the Page Museum in Los Angeles, to whom the fossils were sent for posiitive ID, confirmed that the bones belonged to the smaller (but hardly less fearsome) Smilodon, a.k.a. sabertoothed cat, often wrongly referred to as the "sabertooth tiger."

There were three commonly recognized species of Smilodon; the one known to have inhabited the area during the Ice Age during the period from which these fossils came was the extravagantly named Smilodon fatalis, California's official state fossil.

Paleontologists have surveyed the area for additional fossils and found none, giving the all-clear for construction to proceed. But these aren't the first fossils found on the site, a fact that provoked some giddy enthusiasm from one Bureau of Land Management scientist.

"There have been a few other surprises at the Desert Sunlight project site," said BLM archaeologist George Kline in an email newsletter. "First it was a Pleistocene horse and camelid, now the most horrific carnivore since T-Rex! For an expected low probability of encountering fossils, the project has provided paleontologists with surprise after surprise."

The BLM willl be sending ReWire more details on the find, and we'll report on anything significant in days to come.

The 550-megawatt Desert Sunlight project north of Desert Center is beng built by First Solar for owners NextEra, GE Energy Financial Services, and Sumitomo Corporation of America. The project is expected to be completely online by 2015.


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About the Author

Chris Clarke is a natural history writer and environmental journalist currently at work on a book about the Joshua tree. He lives in Joshua Tree.
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