Inside Rensselaer
* Local Collaboration Looks at Ancient  Saber-Toothed Tiger Teeth
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Local Collaboration Looks at Ancient  Saber-Toothed Tiger Teeth
Chris Bjornsson, director of the Microscopy and Imaging Core Facility in the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies (CBIS), typed away on a computer attached to what looked like a miniaturized MRI. The CT scanner whirred quietly into action deep in the basement of the building. Normally used by Bjornsson and other Rensselaer researchers to scan tiny bones and tissue samples to study human disease like osteoporosis, the machine contained the biggest object that it had ever scanned — the canine tooth of an ancient saber-toothed tiger.

The special scan took place on April 9 and was part of a unique collaboration with the New York State Museum that brought together researchers from both institutions to study the ancient teeth using some of the most modern technology currently available. And, as new and old collided, the researchers began to gain new insight into the life, habitat, and diet of big cats that died up to 30,000 years ago.

“This is an exciting local partnership that highlights the research capabilities and potential for collaboration here in the Capital Region,” said Glenn Monastersky, director of operations at CBIS. “I am excited to see our equipment, which was purchased with funding through the New York state Gen*NY*sis program, being used for a scientific collaboration with a neighboring Albany institution.”

Robert Feranec, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the New York State Museum, has been studying the teeth of young saber-toothed tigers for several years. Bigger than the deadly canines of an adult Bengal tiger, the ancient teeth of the two baby saber-toothed tigers that he brought for the scan were extremely menacing.

“This is an exciting local partnership that highlights the research capabilities and potential for collaboration here in the Capital Region. I am excited to see our equipment being used for a scientific collaboration with a neighboring Albany institution.”

Stained slightly black from the tar that surrounded them for thousands of years in the La Brea tar pits of southern California, they already appeared to be lethal weapons. But, even after extensive research on these fascinating ancient cats, paleontologists still don’t know how long it takes the cats to grow their signature banana-sized adult canine teeth. Without a better understanding of how long the teeth take to grow, paleontologists don’t yet know when the cats could have used them to kill, what they ate before and after their teeth grew in, or if young cats needed to stay with their parents for a longer period before they become fully capable killers.

A CT scan was exactly what Feranec needed to help solve these ancient puzzles, but it took several years of searching to find the specialized technology that he needed. He discovered the technology right in his backyard at Rensselaer. After hearing from several colleagues that Rensselaer had a scanner that was likely a perfect fit, Feranec reached out to Monastersky and Bjornsson. The scan was quickly arranged and the teeth of the two cats were brought by Feranec to the Rensselaer researchers.

It took nearly six hours to fully scan one of the teeth, and the preliminary results look extremely promising. Feranec will now analyze the results to determine how long it takes the enamel in the teeth to harden and mature or mineralize. Because the CT scanner breaks the image down into extremely thin slices, the researchers will be able to determine how long the mineralized part of the teeth is. Feranec has previously discovered a mathematical formula that he can now apply to this data to determine how long it took the teeth to mature. With this information, he will be able to calculate how long the adult tooth likely took to grow as well as the order in which the other teeth erupted from the cat’s jaw. The research could have widespread implications for understanding the development and growth of teeth in all ancient mammals.

“This is a very big change from what we usually do here,” Bjornsson said. “We are really excited to see this equipment put to new and evocative use.”

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Inside Rensselaer
Volume 2, Number 8, May 2, 2008
©2008 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
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