Topped with a cowboy hat and donning a red "UNLV Geoscience" T-shirt, paleontologist Joshua Bonde leads a small band of students across uneven soil. The gravel crunches with each lumbering step as they make their way up the belly of the "The Sump," as locals have dubbed these badlands.
Located in the shadow of Boundary Peak, Nevada's highest point, The Sump has been whittled by millions of years of weather. The arid land is populated by rocky ravines, bizarre hoodoos, and little else. But this past March, it is what used to live and thrive here that beckons the UNLV group.
They were searching for clues to a world that has long since vanished in the Silver State -- a world before the Sierra Nevadas developed, changing the weather pattern for the entire Great Basin. Their ultimate prize: a partial skull from a four-tusked, elephant-like animal known as a Gomphothere.
In 2012, Phil Compton of Templeton, Calif., snapped pictures of a strange rocky lump as he explored the area about 250 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Esmeralda County. He later realized it might be a skull and shared the find with UNLV, which then worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to secure rights to excavate the find.
Bonde received his Ph.D. from UNLV in 2012 and is now a visiting professor. He and his mentor, longtime UNLV geoscience professor Stephen Rowland, timed the dig to this year's spring break and assembled a research party with graduate students Dawn Reynoso and Fabian Hardy; undergraduates Chelsy Salas, Oscar Vazquez, and Andrew Rigney; alumna Margarita Rodriguez ('12 BA Geology); and Lauren Parry of Brooklyn, N.Y., who is considering UNLV for her graduate studies.
They spent the week camping to document the skull and track down bones from other animals that roamed this land some 12 to 16 million years ago.
As students process the site and work to protect the skull with a plaster jacket, Rowland notes that no other bones from the Gomphothere were found. Work slows as they listen to his gravelly voice and scholarly explanation. Predators of the day may have carted off the other parts or, more likely, the Gomphothere died in a lake. Since the skull is the heaviest part, it detaches first during the decomposing process, he tells them.
Rigney, a geoscience major, points to the evidence in the land that this area once was drastically different, and dominated by redwoods, oaks, and swampy beaver ponds. "Coming up here I was noticing things I've just learned in my geomorphology class," he says in what must be a gratifying comment for his professors.
As the deep blue of the darkening sky gives way to the stars not seen from campus, the team heads back to camp. Bonde, a native Nevadan, glances around The Sump. Holding a Great Basin Brewery Ichthyosaur "Icky" IPA, he is lost in thought and campfire chatter. He seems pleased.
"I've always wanted to be a paleontologist since I was a kid growing up in Fallon," Bonde says. "I have a sense of pride being able to stay in the state, to do what I do, and to advocate for keeping our natural resources here in Nevada for our citizens to enjoy. And not just to enjoy, but also to learn from and to get an appreciation for the deeper history of our state."
The skull is now safely housed at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, where Bonde's team will carefully remove the sandstone encasing much of the bone. Once the specimen is stabilized, they'll compare its measurements to other known Gomphotheres. The public is invited to stop by and see this process in action. Bonde hopes to return to The Sump to find evidence of other creatures that lived with this one to better understand how the ecosystem then led to the one we have now.