BERKELEY COUNTY, SC (WCIV) — A hobby diver found a rare South Carolina fossil while exploring the Cooper River recently.
Eric Proulx discovered what's been identified by experts as the fossilized tooth of an American Lion (Panthera atrox).
Proulx found the tooth on March 20 while SCUBA diving with Cooper River Dive Charters in an area of the river in lower Berkeley County.
The Cooper River is renowned for rich deposits of fossils and relics hidden in its swift, black depths, coming to rest on the bottom of the river after being discarded from above or eroded from the surrounding land over millennia.
Divers like Proulx brave enough to face the relentless current and near invisibility have come away with treasures dating back thousands and even millions of years.
"It was a little chilly," Proulx joked of the conditions the day he found the tooth. He was 45 feet under water, and the water temperature was 58F.
"Visibility was probably less than a foot," Proulx added.
When he placed his hands on the fossilized lion tooth, he wasn't sure at first what he found. Proulx originally thought it may have been from a marine predator such as an extinct whale or dolphin.
Proulx took photos of the tooth and presented them to the Palmetto Paleontological Society, a Facebook-based online community of professional and amateur paleontologists, hobby fossil hunters and enthusiasts.
There Dr. Robert Boessenecker, a paleontologist at the College of Charleston and prehistoric whale and dolphin expert, first identified the tooth as belonging to a carnivorous land mammal.
Proulx then showed the tooth to Dave Cicimurri, a paleontologist and curator of natural history at the South Carolina State Museum in Columbia. Cicimurri positively identified the tooth as belonging to an American lion.
American lions were a Pleistocene cat species that became extinct about 10,000-12,000 years ago.
Found from modern-day Canada to Mexico, they lived alongside mammoths, dire wolves, giant sloths and other famous megafauna commonly associated with prehistoric North America.
Those giant species all died out after the peak of the last glacial period during the most recent ice age, as Earth's climate began rapidly warming and humans began spreading across the world.
American lions originally were thought to be super-sized versions of modern lions, but further study of their fossilized remains indicates they were more similar to modern jaguars and tigers.
While not an uncommon find elsewhere in North America such as the La Brea tar pits in California, American lions are not well represented in the fossil history of South Carolina.
Proulx intends to donate the fossil to the South Carolina State Museum's natural history collection.