Dr. Michale Pafford, an internist from Benton, recently authored a column in the Benton County Courier. His work about the “Arkansas Sabertooth” which was published in the Sunday, August 12 edition of the paper, can be found below.
Mysterious cave in the Buffalo National River Forest intrigues Benton physician
By Dr. Michael Pafford
What do a forgotten Ozark cave, Tyrannosaurus Rex, and Pleistocene saber-toothed cats have in common? Follow along with me, and I’ll explain.
I’ve always had a fascination with maps. Some would argue that maps are becoming obsolete because your smart phone can give you turn-by-turn directions to almost any destination you choose. I disagree. There’s an undeniable value in being able to lay out a map and trace your finger over ridges and along waterways. Such an experience cannot be had on your smart phone. Sometimes I forget how lucky we are to live in the Natural State, and to be reminded, I get out my box of maps.
It was a Sunday several months ago when I just happened to have down my box of maps. I had gotten out a guide to the of the Buffalo National River Forest to look over a trail that I had hiked. As I laid the map out on the table and examined the features, I noticed a bold marking that I had not seen nor heard of before. The landmark was bolded as if it was a significant destination, and this piqued my interest because I had fooled myself into believing that I knew a thing or two about the Buffalo forest. I was thoroughly surprised to see a destination that I had never heard of. The feature was named Conard Fissure. I scoured my memory, trying to figure why I had not seen or heard of this landmark before. I called a couple of friends and neither had heard of such a place. A quick Google search did not reveal anything of obvious interest. There was a link to a page about Dogpatch USA and a cave that was located there. There was a link to a page about the Buffalo River. The only solid lead on this mysterious landform was a link to the American Museum of Natural History and a man named Barnum Brown.
If you’re like me, mention of that name does not instantly register. But it should. Even if you don’t recognize the name, you already know him by his exploits. We’re all familiar with Brown’s most famous discovery: the first documented remains of Tyrannosaurus Rex. That fossil was discovered by Barnum Brown at the Hell Creek Formation of southeastern Montana in 1902. Brown was a paleontologist and an explorer with a stylistic flare. He was known to have worn full length fur coats to some of his paleontological digs, and some referred to him as Mr. Bones. He spent an entire career scouring the world for artifacts and fossils.
In my research, I found that his discovery of Tyrannosaurus Rex overshadowed a major discovery he made right here in Arkansas at Conard Fissure. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that Conard Fissure earned its bolded map letters because Brown was digging up Saber-toothed tiger skeletons there, in Newton County in 1904.
Today, it is considered bad form to use the term saber-toothed tiger because the creature is not closely related to the tiger. Saber-toothed cat is now the preferred term, but I think it’s appropriate to say saber-toothed tiger when referring to Brown’s discovery because that is the term he used in his original article published in 1908. In that original paper, he describes how he came to find Conard Fissure and catalogs the excavation.
The fissure was named after Waldo Conard, who was a farmer and landowner in Newton County in the early 1900s. In 1903, Conard was searching his land, hoping to find a lead mine that he had heard rumor of. Instead, he found a cave full of bones. Unable to identify some of the bones, he sent a sample to Prof. Frederick Putnam, who was then the curator of anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History. (That’s right, the one in New York City.) Ancient animal bones were really not Putnam’s area of expertise, but he knew of another young researcher at the museum who had shown promise digging up ancient fossils: Prof. Barnum Brown.
Obviously, the most significant finding in Conard Fissure was the several partial skeletons of saber-toothed cats. Later on, it would be these samples of saber-toothed cat that scientists used to help define a major species of saber-toothed cat in North America: Smilodon gracilis. But my favorite among the fossils found at Conard Fissure is an extinct species of peccary. This peccary is a wild hog that was prolific in the prehistoric landscape of Arkansas. Being a Razorback fan, I can’t help but smile when I imagine these wild hogs roaming the Ozarks hundreds of thousands of years before the University of Arkansas was established there.
I was no longer content to just look at this destination on a map. I had to go and try to find it myself, even though it was grown over with one hundred years’ worth of forest.
You will not find a trail leading to Conard Fissure. There is no sign when you get there that reads “You’re at Conard Fissure.” It’s just a coordinate on a map, and there is no guarantee that the coordinate is 100 percent accurate. You may not find Conard Fissure easily, but it’s there, forgotten about in the Buffalo Forest, possibly with no visitors since Brown left it, and maybe it’s better that way. Even when forgotten about, the intricacies of nature amaze.