Tom Gordon of Carson City, Nevada was digging a trench for a water line in his backyard when he began to find bones that turned out to be the remains of Ice Age herbivores. Mr. Gordon’s daughter contacted Nevada paleontologist, Dr. Steve Rowland, an Emeritus Geology Professor at UNLV and Lab Manager at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.
In June, Rowland, Gordon, and UNLV PhD student, Eric Chameroy, spent a week digging up the fossils. Rowland and Chameroy are now studying and cataloging the collection at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.
Visitors to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum are invited to stop by the Richard A. Ditton Learning Lab to see the fossils and meet the paleontologists who are currently studying them, Monday through Friday from 9am – 4pm.
“The bones of several individual animals are present in the fossil assemblage,” Rowland said, “but almost all of them appear to belong to the same species. The frustrating thing is that we aren’t completely sure yet what species they belong to! We did not recover any well-preserved skulls, which is the most useful part of an animal’s skeleton for identification purposes, so we have not yet been able to unequivocally identify the species.“
Rowland added that the animal whose bones most closely match the shapes of the Carson City bones, is a musk ox-a long-haired, cow-like animal that lives in Alaska and northern Canada. Musk oxen might seem to be unlikely animals to live in Nevada, but there were two species of musk oxen-both of which are now extinct-that lived throughout much of the U.S. during the Ice Age. Fossils of one of the extinct musk ox species-called the ‘shrub ox’-have been found in a cave north of Reno. The other extinct species-the ‘helmeted musk ox’-has never been reported to occur in Nevada, but it is well known from western Utah, Idaho, and Colorado.
“There is no reason the helmeted musk ox wouldn’t also have lived in Nevada,” Rowland said, “and I strongly suspect that we have the fossils that will ultimately show that it was here.” The helmeted musk ox went extinct about 11,000 years ago. The age of the Carson City fossils is not yet known, but a sample has been sent to a radiocarbon lab for analysis. “I’m guessing it will be around 18,000 to 20,000 years,” he said. “That is the age of the Last Glacial Maximum, when the Earth’s climate was the coldest it had been for the past 100,000 years. It would have been a good time for musk oxen to inhabit Nevada, at the latitude of Carson City.”
Rowland and Chameroy will eventually take some of the fossils to the University of Utah Museum in Salt Lake City, to compare them with fossils that have previously been identified to the level of species. They are also planning a return trip to Carson City to continue excavation.
It has not yet been determined where the Carson City bones will ultimately end up. “They should definitely stay in Nevada. Ideally, they should be permanently housed and displayed in a museum close to where we excavated them,” Rowland said. “They are part of Nevada’s natural heritage. They need to be kept where members of the public can see them and other scientists can examine them.”