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An excavation of a mammoth (see molars) at Tule Springs Wash by paleontologists from the San Bernardino County Museum. slideshow...

Tule Springs (Nevada)

In the southern Great Basin north of Las Vegas, Nevada, a broad expanse of the upper Las Vegas Wash, an ancient and modern tributary of the Colorado River, holds an amazing cache of long-lost treasures. In this region, literally within site of the famous Las Vegas Strip, spectacular Ice Age fossils entombed in ancient wetlands are rewriting our understanding of prehistoric climate change in the American west. New studies combining paleontology, geology, and climate studies are establishing Las Vegas as the southwest's gold standard for Ice Age investigations. And ancient mammoths—Columbian mammoths, Mammuthus columbi—are key players in the age-old saga of life and death in Vegas.

The upper Las Vegas Wash is home of the famed Tule Springs fossil site. For nearly a century, archaeologists and other scientists have explored Tule Springs and the surrounding area, finding abundant remains of extinct animals that thrived here during the Pleistocene Epoch—the "Ice Ages"—including numerous remains of mammoths. Fossils of these extinct behemoths make up a large proportion of the Pleistocene megafaunal record from the Las Vegas Wash; the region appears to have been "Mammoth Central", indicating that food and water were both relatively plentiful here in ages past.

Currently, paleontologists and geologists still actively explore Tule Springs and the upper Las Vegas Wash, uncovering a rich and diverse record of life in the Ice Ages. Scientists from the San Bernardino County Museum in Redlands, California, have identified over 500 previously unrecorded fossil sites in the area, recovering thousands of Pleistocene fossils from ancient Ice Age spring deposits, and nearly half of the sites have yielded mammoth! Funded through a research grant from the Las Vegas Field Office of the Bureau Land Management, these studies have yielded the most complete and extensive fossil collection of any ever recovered from the region. Mammoths are among the most common large mammals discovered in the wash, but other extinct animals—camels, horses, bison, and sloths, to name just a few—also dwelled here. This fossil wealth makes Tule Springs the largest open-air paleontological site in the Mojave Desert and southern Great Basin area.

Early investigations in at Tule Springs sought to link the mammoths and other megafauna with evidence of early humans. Flakes of rock from the wash suggesting human manufacture led to the inference that people actively hunted mammoths and other megafauna. Multidisciplinary studies conducted in the 1930s, 1950s, and 1960s tested this hypothesis, concluding that the tools and flakes occurred only in young sediments lacking fossil remains. Bones of mammoths and other megafauna were confined to older sediments. In the absence of concrete evidence supporting the human-megafauna connection, interest in Tule Springs waned.

The turn of the millennium brought renewed attention on the Las Vegas Wash—but this time, the focus was on the fossils and geology, not on possible links to early peoples. What about the mammoths themselves? How many, how big, how old? How did they live, why did they die? The new BLM-funded efforts paid off, and many hundreds of mammoth fossils are now known from the region. One quarry in particular proved to be the largest single site ever discovered from Tule Springs, yielding hundreds upon hundreds of fossils—including remains of at least three individual mammoths. Some of the tusks from this one quarry are the most complete known from Tule Springs, measuring up to seven feet in length!

In addition to the research by paleontologists from the San Bernardino County Museum, the preservation of the Tule Springs paleontological area has been of great interest to the public and a group has been established called the Protectors of Tule Springs Wash. Additionally, the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology and the National Parks and Conservation Association have helped to promote public awareness of the scientific significance of the Tule Springs Wash. Collectively, through science and education, the Tule Springs Fossil Area has become recognized as a nationally significant Ice Age fossil locality.

Mammoth partner feature articles:

Big Bone Lick State Park | Channel Islands NP, Pygmy Mammoth | Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose | Denver Museum of Nature & Science Snowmastodon Project | Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County | Kenosha Public Museums | The Mammoth Site at Hot Springs | Paleontological Research Institution, Museum of the Earth | The Tate Geological Museum at Casper College | Tule Springs Ice Age Park | Waco Mammoth Site

Last updated: February 17, 2012