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.
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.
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 Museumin 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.
4. The Wallman Mammoth
This mammoth was one of a handful of mammoth discoveries from the Black Rock Desert of Washoe County on Bureau of Land Management-administered lands. The Wallman Mammoth was first discovered out on the Black Rock in 1979 and was subsequently excavated by the Nevada State Museum. It took 14 years of preparation and reconstruction, an effort well worth it as this specimen has greeted museum visitors for two decades (including a middle school visit by yours truly). The Wallman Mammoth represents the largest exhibited Columbian mammoth in the world. Columbian mammoths could reach 18 feet at the shoulder, much larger than the Wooly mammoths that came to North America much later in the Ice Age.
5. Dinosaurs of Nevada!
I include this one as a top five because I was prodded to—not for any sort of shameless self-promotion (OK, maybe there's a little self-promotion here). Since 2004 my collaborators and I have been examining rocks around Nevada that are about 95-120 million years old. We have found a diverse record of life in our state during the last part of the dinosaur age. So far the list includes such plant-eating dinosaurs as duck-billed dinosaurs and sauropods (long-necked and long-tailed animals) and meat eaters including raptors, cousins of allosaurs, and ancestors of tyrannosaurs. In addition to the dinosaurs, we have found a lot of turtles, crocodiles, fish, and plants. This work is ongoing and is being conducted throughout the state. It would not be possible without the Nevada Division of State Parks or the Ely District office of the Bureau of Land Management. Some of this exciting ongoing research can be seen at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum and at the Sierra College Natural History Museum in Sacramento.