Cave explorers dig into the history of cats at Natural Bridge Caverns

For an hour, John Moretti dived, injured and crawled through a world of caves until he was 120 feet underground. Covered in thick mud, he reached a space no bigger than an apartment living room. He tied himself to a rope and abseiled down a gaping hole in total darkness.

The paleontologist was looking for ancient wild cats – or rather what is left of them.

The four-day expedition to Natural Bridge Caverns, about 25 miles northeast of downtown San Antonio, targeted the final resting place of cat fossils estimated to be 20,000 years old. Scientists hope the remains will offer a glimpse of prehistoric nature.

Moretti, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Texas at the Jackson School of Geosciences in Austin, knows very little about the cat. It is too early to tell the age of the bones or what species they belong to. But with the help of cavers from Natural Bridge Caverns, he was on a mission to extract the fossils and study them in a lab in Austin.

For several years, speleologists explored the caves and discovered the ancient tracks and bones of cats. Finding the relics intact, they contacted the Jackson School.

This is where Moretti came in. It’s been about a year and a half since he first descended into the miles of winding caves that make up the cavern system.

A cat fossil is a rare find, so analyzing these bones and traces will help researchers learn more about the lives of prehistoric cats and compare them with cats today.

“As we learn more about the past, we learn more about our place in the world,” he said.

“It’s natural history, but we don’t always have the books or the accounts of what it was,” he said, “so we explore places like this.”

ancient cats

In a restricted area of ​​the caves, about 10 cavers – with Moretti – strapped on their equipment for the start of the expedition. Each wore a caving harness, helmets with headlamps, and knee and elbow pads. They carried dry bags for snacks, extra lights, water, Gatorade and other climbing gear. Some also carried tools to extract the bones, as well as boxes to bring them into the modern world.

It was in 1960 that students from St. Mary’s University explored and discovered the cave system. Since then, about 20 percent of it has been lit and paved. The rest – called “Wild Cave” – ​​is accessible to explorers or visitors only with permission from Natural Bridge Caverns.

These early explorers discovered the first cat bones there and sent them to UT Austin in 1963. It wasn’t until nearly 60 years later, in 2019, that further exploration revealed others elsewhere in the world. the caves and cat tracks along the passages.

Natural Bridge cave geologist Brian Vawter said it was about a year ago, somewhat by accident, that some cavers noticed the cat tracks that inspired the current expedition.

“The track is not solidified or fossilized,” Vawter said. “We could step on it and completely ruin the track. It literally looks like a little paw print in the mud.

The footprints could be from 10,000 years ago, but they look like they were left yesterday.

It has aged so well because caves are masters of preservation. The temperature and humidity – moist and warm – remain the same, and there’s no wind or rain to degrade the print. Plus, the mud is thick and clayey, perfect for soaking up a cat’s weight and never bouncing around.

No one knows for sure if these tracks are related to the bones Moretti was there to hunt, but he hopes that by scanning the footprints and analyzing them he can find out. The footprints and bones could be from the same time or thousands of years apart.

“They could be as young as 2,000 years old or as old as 20,000,” Moretti said. “These cats could be from the end of the Ice Age.”

Underground spaces

One of the places targeted by the expedition is called the Inferno room. The journey there is long. The tunnels range from standing height to crouching height, forcing visitors down into the mud. A 40-foot stretch, called the Birthing Canal, is so narrow that explorers must drag their bodies through rock and mud before sliding down the other side. At another location, they must jump to higher ground – over a deep, marshy hole – and keep their footing on slabs of slippery rock.

The Natural Bridge Caverns team leading Moretti through the basement included the two cave owners – brothers Brad and Travis Wuest – and their combined 100 years of caving experience.

At the entrance to the Inferno room – where explorers had to attach themselves to a climbing rope and rappel down about 60 feet – Brad Wuest stared into the pitch-black void.

“What we’re really wondering here is how these cats even get into caves,” he said.

Given that “we’re still a mile from the natural entrance”, it’s “hard to imagine they got that far in total darkness, passing thousands of traps to die”.

Maybe they were hunting prey and got lost in the dark, or maybe there was another entrance thousands of years ago that cats used to get in and out quickly. They may have been bobcats, jaguarundis or margays, which now live only in Central and South America.

For Moretti, there are two narratives at play. One addresses the biodiversity of central Texas over the millennia: the story of how the animals of present-day Texas came into being. The other is more intimate: the story of two cats and their last moments, frozen in time and mud.

“It’s a truly remarkable and so unique find,” said Moretti. “The people of San Antonio should be proud of this piece of natural history.”

Elena Bruess writes for the Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places reporters in local newsrooms. [email protected]