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December 19, 2014

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More ancient treasures found

Scientists have discovered fossils from frogs, whipsnakes, glossy snakes and a grasshopper mouse never before found in the Las Vegas Valley, indicating a wetter environment existed here more than 40,000 years ago.

Researchers from the San Bernardino County Museum in California found the items in the Tule Springs area north of Las Vegas. They were displayed Tuesday night at the Nevada Power Co. building on West Sahara Avenue.

The most recent dig yielded a treasure trove of mammoth, bison, camel and horse bones in addition to the new fossils, researchers said.

The eight-member museum team expected to find remains of mammoths, bison, camel and horses, but said the frogs, snakes and mice were unexpected. Those fossil fragments are helping researchers piece together the bigger picture of the Mojave Desert environment from the last Ice Age.

"We're not just interested in the spectacular fossils," Eric Scott, curator of paleontology at the museum, said.

Paleontologists are interested in how animals survived together, how many animals existed in the Mojave Desert and how many species thrived, Scott said.

The more fossils discovered in Southern Nevada, the better picture of the past emerges.

"We want as many fossils as we can get," Scott said.

The latest expedition follows major digs in 1933, in the 1950s and the "big dig" of 1962, Scott said.

"You had a lot more plant life and a lot more animal life than we knew," Scott said.

The team surveyed an area where a Nevada Power transmission line at Apex northeast of Las Vegas delivers electricity across the northern end of the valley.

The power line route was a mere slice of the potential for finding fossils in the area, said Eileen Wynkoop of Nevada Power, who hired the museum team.

"There is so much more," she said.

If a human artifact and ancient animals bones from the same time frame had been found, the power line would have been re-routed, Scott said. "Human artifacts are very important," he said, although none were found at Tule Springs from the same time frame as the animals and plants.

While glaciers existed in the mountains and snow-capped peaks were common back then, melting ice formed streams, creeks and even lakes in the Las Vegas Valley, Scott said.

One of the significant finds extracted from the rock was a bone from a split-legged horse, a relative of present day horses, Scott said. Similar horses lived in the Ice Age in Mongolia, so finding a leg bone is significant, Scott said.

The last great Ice Age lasted from 1.8 million years to 10,000 years ago. After that, the Great Basin, encompassing all of Nevada, underwent violent earth movements as its crust pulled apart. The Las Vegas Valley was formed from that stress as the surrounding mountains continue to separate.

More work on uncovering Southern Nevada's past is under way.

Shadow Ridge High School received a $150,000 grant to continue research for two years in the Tule Springs area and at the Gilcrease Ranch, Steve Rowland, a paleontologist at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, said.

"It's very exciting," Rowland said of the most recent discoveries.

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