Sadly when people think of finding fossils of backboned animals, like dinosaurs or mammoths, they typically do not think of Nevada. Our state has a varied and complicated geological past, which makes reading the rocks more difficult than in other states. So when looking for fossils you have to have a very keen eye and a great deal of determination. Fortunately, some spectacular vertebrate paleontological discoveries came about in our state. These are my favorite.
1. Shonisaurus popularis
Nevada's state fossil was first discovered in 1928 near the ghost town of Berlin in the central part of the state. Shonisaurus represents the largest of the marine reptiles to have ever swum the seas during the age of dinosaurs, reaching lengths of up to 75 feet. Its backbone were large enough that miners in the area used them for dinner plates. In 1958, Charles Camp of the University of California excavated a large horizon of at least 12 dead individuals. You can visit Camp's original dig site and see the remains of these magnificent animals in place at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.
Charles Lewis Camp in 1954 at what would become Ichthyosaur State Park, Nevada. (UC Museum of Paleontology: http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/about/history/clcamp.php)
2. Tule Springs Fossil Beds
After the discovery of a mastodon in the Las Vegas Valley back in 1903, Chester Stock of the University of California revisited the area in 1919. During this expedition Stock found the remains of mammoths, bison, horses, and American lions. These discoveries offered the first hint that the area -- at the north end of the valley -- held one of the most prolific Ice Age fossil assemblages anywhere in the world. This area is currently being considered as a Fossil Beds National Monument before Congress. You can see the newest discoveries from Tule Springs being processed by UNLV faculty and students at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.
UNLV students and volunteers dig in the Tule Springs fossil beds. (Courtesy Joshua Bonde)
3. Nevada State Prison Track Site
When sandstone was being quarried for construction by prison inmates in the 1870s, a series of spectacular animal tracks were discovered. These tracks include the footprints of mammoths, camels, horses, wolves, big cats, and birds. Where dinosaur tracks seem to be relatively common, the tracks of mammals are relatively rare, so this site is a beautiful record of an ecosystem near a shallow lake that existed in Carson City 1-5 million years ago. These tracks were such a spectacular find at the time that they inspired Mark Twain to interpret them as the footprints of the first drunken state legislature getting out of session. One of the most unique of these tracks are those of giant ground sloths. This site is one of the only places in all of North America where tracks of these bizarre animals are preserved. To see some of the tracks you can visit the W.M. Keck Earth Science and Mineral Engineering Museum in the Mackay School of Mines building at the University of Nevada, Reno. With the closing of the prison, there is currently a push to open the grounds as a historic and natural history site.