Teeth of saber tooth tiger scanned

Tiger teeth can be quite telling.
Robert S. Feranec, curator of vertebrate palenontology at the New York State Museum, holds the tooth of a saber toothed tiger on Wednesday.
Robert S. Feranec, curator of vertebrate palenontology at the New York State Museum, holds the tooth of a saber toothed tiger on Wednesday.

Tiger teeth can be quite telling.

That’s the hope of researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the New York State Museum, who performed a special scan on two banana-sized saber tooth tiger teeth Wednesday at the RPI campus to learn more about the biology of the animals, whose remains are estimated to be 30,000 years old.

Researchers, including Robert S. Feranec, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the New York State Museum, performed a specialized CT scan on the teeth of the tigers.

He did his Ph.D. on the animals and has been trying to determine how quickly the trademark canine teeth grew.

This may seem like insignificant information to the layperson, but to a scientist this growth rate can offer great insight into the animal and how it lived.

“If I get the data I need, to my knowledge this would be the first time you can calculate the rate of growth of the teeth,” he said.

Feranec has spent years researching the life of these ancient 400-pound cats and has a certain fascination with them.

He said the information could be applied to other mammals in New York.

He borrowed the teeth from the Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley, Calif., and for months had been searching for equipment he could use to perform the sophisticated scanning technology.

Then, much to his surprise, he learned through the academic grapevine that RPI had the equipment — a CT scanner. Officials at RPI gave him permission to use it to test the teeth.

“The museum searched around the country to find this sophisticated scanning technology and it happened to be right here in their backyard,” said Glenn Monastersky, RPI’s director of operations for the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, where the scanning was done.

Monastersky and Feranec met Wednesday in the microscopy laboratory of CBIS to explain the technology to reporters. Because the teeth are so big and the scanner’s resolution is so high, it was expected to take several hours for the scan.

Feranec and Chris Bjornsson, who oversees the center’s Microscopy and Imaging Research Core, carefully placed the tiger’s teeth into the micro CT scanner and taped them into place.

The machine works much like the ones used to perform scans on humans, but provides a much higher resolution.

But nothing as big as the tiger teeth had ever been scanned in the $250,000 machine, so it was a rather ground-breaking test.

The teeth were uncovered in the La Brea tar pits in California, but research done on them can be applied to other animals in New York like the mastodon, wolves and ancient big cats, said Feranec.

Feranec, who has also done much work on the Cohoes Mastodon, said the length of time it takes for the adult tiger’s teeth to reach maturity could reveal important information on the animal’s diet, life cycle and surrounding prehistoric ecosystem.

He was thrilled to be able to test the teeth locally at RPI. “This is equipment most state museums wouldn’t purchase,” he said.

Feranec said if he gets the information about the rate of growth of the teeth, it will help him and other scientists understand the biology of the animal.

The project is part of his ongoing research at the museum and the museum will get some credit for his findings, which could lead to new grants. “It would be applicable to other animals in the state,” he said.

Bjornsson said it’s a great chance for RPI to collaborate with the museum. “We’ve never done any thing like this before. We are excited.”

He said the tiger teeth were some of the stranger things that had been tested in the state-of-the-art machine, which is usually used to test things like bone fragments for medical research.

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