Here Cave Kitty, Kitty

A caver suspended from a rope
Doctoral student John Moretti descends into the Inferno Room, a chamber at Natural Bridge Caverns, to collect fossil remains from a small ancient wildcat. Credit: Natural Bridge Caverns/Chris Higgens.

This spring, Jackson School of Geosciences doctoral student John Moretti led a successful mission to recover mysterious and ancient small wildcat fossils from deep inside Natural Bridge Caverns, a local cave and popular tourist destination.

Moretti and the Natural Bridge science team braved 65-foot and 50-foot vertical drops to recover bones from two wildcats.

The placement of small paw prints before each drop — and wildcat bones at the bottom — suggest that the ancient cats may have met their end by falling into the chambers below. The bones are estimated to date back to 20,000 years ago. The researchers don’t yet know what type of wildcats the bones belong to. Some potential contenders include bobcats, ocelots, jaguarundis or margays.

The next step of the research will look for DNA and other data that could help determine the identities and ages of the ancient cave cats.