Carnivore Death Cave: What Lured Ancient Mammals To Their Deaths?

By Philip Ross on May 3, 2013 10:38 AM EDT

prehistoric death cave
Among the fossils discovered at the carnivore death cave in Spain were those of the saber-tooth cat, a predatory mammal which roamed the earth from 42 million years ago up until 11,000 years ago. (Photo: Creative Commons)

A carnivore death cave unearthed in Spain brought up more questions than answers after it was discovered that the animals had sauntered into the cavern on their own free will. What lured ancient carnivores to their demise at the carnivore death cave in Spain?

Carnivore Death Cave Has Prehistoric Roots

Live Science reports that in 1991, miners uncovered the carnivore death about 19 miles outside of Madrid. After stumbling upon animal bones, they contacted local paleontologists, who came in to excavate.

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What they found was the paleontologist's equivalent of the lost tombs of King Tut; the cave system was a treasure trove of prehistoric fossil remains, all between 9 and 10 million years old and including red pandas, bear dogs and saber-toothed cats. There were also ancient animals related to modern giraffes, rhinoceroses and horses, according to Live Science, although, intriguingly, the cave held an extremely large selection of predator bones and relatively fewer herbivorous skeletons.

According to Science World Report, nearly 18,000 fossils have been uncovered in what came to be known as the Cerro de los Batallones, or "Battalion's Hill," caves.

New Study Highlights Of Carnivore Death Cave

How these animals ended up in the carnivore death cave and what attracted them into it remained a mystery, until recently. Scientists from the U.S. came out with a study Wednesday that pops the lid off some the mysteries surrounding the carnivore death cave. The study, published in Plos One and entitled "Origin of an Assemblage Massively Dominated by Carnivorans from the Miocene of Spain," highlights the distinct nature of the Cerro de los Batallones caves and why it may have been filled with carnivore remains.

The research team found that almost all of the large-mammal fossils found in the cave were carnivores, even though mammalian carnivores represent only a small percentage of the modern ecosystems. According to the study, herbivores outnumber carnivores 10 to one.

"Only the carnivores were daring enough to enter," study co-author M. Soledad Domingo, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, told Live Science. "But they were unable to make their way out."

They determined that the animals were probably lured to the cave by the prospect of food and water inside of it, and that once they fell in, they were unable to get back out. "The scarcity of herbivores implies that the shaft was well visible and avoided by these taxa," the researchers report in their findings.

Once a few of the animals had fallen into the cave and died, other carnivores intentionally entered the cave, attracted by the scent of rotting carcasses. From the study:

It is uncertain whether the carnivorans died as a consequence of the fall per se or remained alive for some time, eventually dying after progressive weakening. Low incidence of carnivore alteration and absence of trampling marks seem to point towards an instantaneous death in the fall ... Carnivores could be struggling for getting resources but it is unlikely that they risked their lifes in the jump. Most probably, carnivores got trapped and remained alive for some time. Low incidence of carnivore marks could be the result of low exploitation of carcasses because there was plenty of meat or because carnivorans died quickly after entrapment.

Over time, the caves flooded and preseved the animal remains - and solidified the carnivore death cave's significance in our planet's geological history.

Read more from iScience Times:

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