Preserve Nevada’s Pleistocene Past!
The University of Nevada Las Vegas Department of Geoscience is home to scientists of many disciplines, The Paleontology Group has grown significantly over the past several years, with new ideas to tackle ancient mysteries. We are a group of professors, students, and fossil enthusiasts, who are dedicated to uncovering long-extinct animals and sharing our findings with the world.
While we are happy to volunteer our time in the pursuit of science and discovery, the reality is that many of our activities require funding. We use equipment and expendable materials in the field to preserve and protect the fossils that we find. Preparation of fossils in a laboratory requires a proper setup that cannot be provided for free. Important data points come from instrumental analyses at a variety of labs, but each one costs money. All of these processes are necessary to fully explore Nevada’s ancient past, and invaluable to the scientific heritage of Nevada and UNLV. The research conducted by UNLV will be published in scientific journal articles and made available worldwide, shining a spotlight on the scientific potential held by Las Vegas.
We’re asking for donations to help fund current and future paleontologic research by UNLV. We hope that you join us, and donate what you can toward scientific studies of Nevada’s ancient history.
The UNLV Paleontology Group
How we plan to use our donations
All donations will go into a collective fund that the UNLV Paleo Group will utilize for our various projects. This includes transportation to the field, equipment, obtaining permits, laboratory materials, high-tech analyses, low-tech printing costs, library material, exhibit creation and curation of impressive or important specimens. Donations are tax-deductible, and help current and future students.
Examples of donation use:
- $10 ensures that we have curatorial supplies for a significant find, or field supplies to properly collect a bone from the site.
- $30 is enough for a single isotopic analysis of an individual specimen, or covers our transportation to the field.
- $50 covers repair parts for one of our most invaluable tools: the pneumatic air scribe. This tool allows us to precisely chip away at the solid rock that fossils are embedded in. The nature of the work means that it wears out over time, and we need to replace components as we continuously work to uncover fossils!
Through a donation, you can help to preserve Nevada’s ancient past!
Our Study Areas:
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument
Tule Springs is the main research area for the UNLV Paleo Group, thanks in part to sheer convenience! It is right in our backyard, so we find every reason to get out to the desert and dig! As a result, we have multiple ongoing projects that study this location. Research by UNLV began in earnest back in 2009, and over the past seven years, it has proved to be an incredible resource. Mammoth tusks, camel leg bones, bison horns, and even a dire wolf foot have all been recovered by UNLV researchers and students.
The establishment of the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument has provided the UNLV Paleo Group unprecedented access to an enormous area filled with potential. The National Park Service has graciously allowed researchers from UNLV to explore and properly collect fossils from the protected 22,650 acres. This site has a long history of scientific research, spanning a century of different institutions. With the relationship between the National Park Service and UNLV, Nevada’s fossils will now stay in their home state, where they can be researched by local scientists and appreciated by the public!
The UNLV Paleo Group has a knack for discovery! The first evidence of Dire Wolf (Canis dirus) from Nevada was found at Tule Springs by UNLV Professor Josh Bonde, who has led countless expeditions into the desert in search of exciting new discoveries. This isolated bone is a clue that there are certainly more to find!
Susie explains taphonomy!
CSI: Paleo could be filmed right here in Las Vegas. When an animal dies, it’s body is left to the whims of nature and the elements. It is rare that an entire animal skeleton is found together in an articulated state. More often, we find bones scattered about an area. This could be due to predators taking apart a body, scavengers picking at the remains, or even a flash flood carrying bones downstream.
Through the use of mapping methods, careful excavation, and meticulous data recording, scientists can begin to understand the circumstances surrounding fossil bones. With luck, they can even associate the bones together to reconstruct a skeleton!
Currently, the UNLV Paleo Group has identified two sites at Tule Springs are ideal for this sort of project. Tuskany, named for the 3-foot-long Columbian mammoth tusk recovered in 2010, continues to yield the bones of several species of megafauna (large animals).
The Camel Site is a location where multiple bones from the large Ice Age camel Camelops have been found. The site is protected from wind and erosion by a large hill on one side. The very same hill that held Nevada’s first dire wolf fossil! This site has the potential to tell us more about the relationships between predators and prey in the Pleistocene Las Vegas Valley!
Tule Springs is named for the now-extinct streams that used to flow through it. The Las Vegas Valley was much cooler and wetter during the last Ice Age, and several species of freshwater mollusks lived here as a result! These tiny snails and clams hold the potential for big data within their shells. When a shell is formed, it uses the chemistry of the water to create a structure. These structures lock in the composition of the time period, and can be examined for highly detailed information.
By closely examining these shells through multiple tests, we hope to determine the amount of change that has occurred in the structures and chemistry of the shells over a period of 100,000 years. At the same time, information on temperature and water conditions is gained, and we will have a better understanding of the climate during the past! This means that multiple datasets can be gathered from just a handful of samples! Another benefit is that several species of mollusks found at Tule Springs are still living today
This requires the use of various high-tech instruments such as an isotope mass spectrometer, electron microanalyzer, and x-ray gun. UNLV has laboratories with each of these machines on campus, but each analysis costs materials and the time of the professor running the lab.
Even the dirt from Tule Springs is valuable to us as well! Researchers from UNLV use a series of screens to separate out mud and dust from useful fossils. We commonly find small teeth, bones, and sometimes shells. Ostracodes are tiny invertebrates, and look like shrimp disguised as beans. These nearly-microscopic crustaceans lived in the sediments of Tule Springs during the Ice Age, and their shells contain a wealth of information. Their shells are formed from the mineral calcite, which contains calcium, oxygen, and magnesium in small amounts, and can be used to reconstruct the past conditions of the site. We hope to reconstruct the water column of the springs in terms of surface temperature, salinity, and pH. This provides a more detailed snapshot of the Ice Age world than the larger animals found at the site because they lived in sensitive and contained areas!
Once we have data from our own backyard, we plan to travel to Death Valley in order to collect similar specimens, in order to place the Las Vegas assemblage into a larger context. The creation of a progressively larger dataset benefits not only Las Vegas, but the entire study of Ice Age climates!
Lauren and Susie explain how to find tiny fossils!
In addition to the mammoths, camels, and bison stomping around Ice Age Tule Springs, there were plenty of little critters! These include mice, woodrats, voles, rabbits, fish, many reptiles, and maybe even frogs. The tricky part is that these small animals are more difficult to preserve, so they require a careful eye in the field. These fragile bones can be difficult to identify, especially if there are only a few piece of a skeleton. In order to fully understand the ecology of Tule Springs, we must collect a large number of small animal bones to try and identify which species are present. This is no small task!
Much of the identification work is done at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, at the Paleontology Preparation Laboratory. This lab provides a place to store equipment, space to work, and a temporary repository for fossils. The museum runs entirely on donations, and the presence of the UNLV Paleo Group helps to bring in visitors who are interested in paleontology!