Fossils of an ancient cat, paw prints found in a cave under the Texas Hill Country

COMAL COUNTY, TX (KXAN) — The remains of two possibly prehistoric cats were recovered this week from deep within the Natural Bridge Caves in Comal County, north of San Antonio. The remains of two small cats were found more than a mile from the natural entrance to the cave. Paw prints left on the floor of the cave were found nearby.

“They are ancient. They have been in this cave for a very long time,” said paleontologist John Moretti, Ph.D. PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. He was part of a five-man expedition sent to find the skeletons, recruited after similar explorations he had made in the caverns of Inner Space.

The exact age of the cat skeletons is unknown. Fossils on the bones indicate that they may be thousands of years old.

According to Moretti, the skeletal remains were found in two rooms in the Natural Bridge caves: the Hell Room and the Dungeon. Paw prints were found in the tunnel connecting the two rooms.

“It seems hard to believe, why would they even go to the cave?” said Brad Wuest, President and CEO of Natural Bridge Caverns. Wuest led the expedition deep into the cave, for which it was necessary to crawl through a narrow passage and descend on a rope into two rooms.

“How did these wild cats get so far into the cave? Did they really enter through the natural entrance and travel in absolute pitch darkness? West said.

Discovery of the first cat skeleton

The first cat skeleton was discovered in 1963 by caver Orient Knox. “They squeezed through this long tunnel, a tunnel-like passage, and he led them to this trap leading into a huge room,” Moretti said.

The skeleton was found in a dungeon room. The tunnel at the top had a hole called Kitty Drop 1 which led into a small room with an angled floor that led into another hole, Kitty Drop 2, which then opened into the Dungeon.

“Right at the bottom of the hole lay the skeleton of a small wild cat,” Wuest said. This skeleton was discovered and studied at UT.

“Fast forward to the current era, we’re back in the Underground,” Wuest said. His team returned to the room and found more skeletal fragments inside. Then they went to the adjacent Inferno room.

“It’s a big chamber that didn’t actually even show up on the map of the caves. And while we were there, we found more bones in that cell.

In the tunnel connecting the rooms, they found cat tracks. “The sediments have preserved cat tracks in places where people have not set foot,” Moretti said.

The traces are covered by a thin layer of sediment that takes a long time to form. “They look like they were made yesterday. And we can easily just smear them.”

“The question is, is this the same specimen from the bones that were extracted back in 63? Did they just not collect all the bones? Or is it another person? West 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 famous natural entrance to the cave. The entrance, created for the Natural Bridge Caverns tours, is a bit closer and shortens the duration of the expedition.

Reaching cats takes a little extra work. “There is one very narrow passage called the birth canal where we have to remove our backpacks and pretty much lie down, pushing our bags in front of us as we stretch on our stomachs,” Moretti said.

Wuest said the team took most of their gear, such as lights and descent gear, with them on the first day and left it there so they wouldn’t have to lug it around with them every day. Every piece of equipment must be carried, and space must be left in backpacks for fossils.

Sterilized bags and gloves are used to collect fossils. Photographs of all paw prints are taken.

West used a sketchbook to document where all the fossils and paw prints were found. The Inferno Room is massive, ten stories high and several meters wide. The dungeon, although large, is long, with many nooks and crannies to search.

How will the fossils and photos of cats be used?

Photographs of the tracks will be used to track the movements of the cats. “Sometimes the claws are inserted, sometimes you can see the trail that slips a little,” Moretti said.

The recovered bones will be radiocarbon dated and DNA tested. Since the bones were in the cave, despite the fossilization, the proteins in the bones were preserved.

“What you need to date a bone is actually a protein that we make when we’re alive,” Moretti said, the cave preserves it.

“It’s like keeping a sandwich in the fridge instead of on the counter, right? On the counter, everything will soon go funny.

Moretti said the cats would give them a better understanding of the wildlife in the mountainous country thousands of years ago.

Do you see fossils and footprints?

While the fossils are removed and studied by Moretti at UT Austin, the paw prints will remain. You can even visit them.

Natural Bridge Caverns offers adventure tours deep into the caves. They are a bit intense and involve crawling and climbing. One of the excursions will introduce visitors to paw prints.

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