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Digging Up Mammoth Fossils

UNLV paleontologists recover mammoth fossils northwest of Las Vegas.

Research  |  Nov 13, 2015  |  By Shane Bevell

UNLV geology students Marco Negovschi (left) and Joe Woodworth excavate the tusk.

A fossil mammoth tusk and molar recently excavated by UNLV paleontologists soon will give us a better idea of what Southern Nevada was like thousands of years ago when animals such as mammoths and camels roamed the valley.

The fossils were excavated from a site adjacent to U.S. Highway 95 west of Indian Springs, about 40 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

Geology professor Steve Rowland, along with undergraduate geology students Joe Woodworth and Marco Negovschi, excavated the fossils under permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Nevada department of transportation (NDOT). Discovered several months ago, the fossils were barely poking out of the ground at the bottom of a man-made flood channel approximately 120 feet from the highway. The site is on BLM land, but lies within the NDOT right-of-way. The dig was delayed until the weather was cooler and permits could be obtained.

The fossils will be cleaned, chemically stabilized, and studied in the fossil prep lab at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Museum visitors will be able to observe paleontologists working on them and ask questions about the research. The Natural History Museum, 900 Las Vegas Blvd. North, is where the fossils will permanently reside.

The tusk was discovered by a person who spotted the fossil as he was walking by. That person, who wishes to remain anonymous, contacted Rowland, sending along a photo of what he had found. Rowland went with him to the site, confirmed that the find was a fossil, and located the molar nearby.

When first discovered, only a small portion of the tusk was exposed. “We had no idea how long it would be,” Rowland said, “and whether we’d find it attached to a skull.” It turned out to be a 2-foot-long segment of tusk, with no skull attached. “The small diameter and short length indicate that it came from a young animal,” he explained.

“We can’t be sure that the tusk and molar came from the same animal — they were found about 10 feet apart — but it seems likely,” Rowland said. “Both of them are fairly small, for a Columbian mammoth. A preliminary analysis of the size and shape of the molar indicates that it came from the lower jaw of a juvenile animal that was about 5 years old. Once we have the tusk and molar cleaned up and studied, we can better evaluate them both.”    

The precise age of the fossils will require radiocarbon dating. Rowland guesses they will be between 13,000 and 20,000 years old. Columbian mammoths — along with camels, bison, horses, and giant ground sloths — lived in Southern Nevada during the Pleistocene ice age, which ended 10,000 years ago.

Fossils are abundant in the recently created Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument and adjacent lands, but the tusk and molar recovered from the Highway 95 corridor are the first such fossils reported from the region west of Indian Springs.

According to Rowland, much of the Las Vegas Valley, as well as the area where the fossils were found, were a series of marshes during cool, wet intervals of the ice age. “It was a great habitat for mammoths,” he said. “This little guy will help us better understand what Southern Nevada was like a few thousand years ago.”