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Nov. 30, 2006
Copyright © Las Vegas Review-Journal


Fossil remains are first for Nevada


A fierce 6-foot-long raptor once roamed what is now Southern Nevada about 100 million years ago based on fossilized dinosaur remains, the first ever documented in the state, found northeast of the Las Vegas Valley.

"This is the first dinosaur stuff described in the state of Nevada from a time period not well-known in North America," said Josh Bonde, of Fallon, the Montana State University researcher who found and documented the fossilized remains over the past year.

Bonde, a 26-year-old graduate student at Montana State University-Bozeman, will announce the find today with officials from Springs Preserve and the Nevada State Museum when they unveil plans for a new museum building that will house some of the newly found fossils at the preserve, near U.S. Highway 95 and Valley View Boulevard.

"I think it's awesome that the state museum is getting a new building and being able to have this discovered at the same time is a bonus," Bonde said.

Petrified remains of at least five types of dinosaurs from the Cretaceous Period were uncovered and recorded during a series of shallow digs and prospecting ventures beginning in March 2005 through this summer.

About 25 colleagues helped Bonde in the field and laboratory to find and identify the fossils. So-called "wet screening" techniques were used to sift through sediments and separate fossils from mud-rock. Plaster casts of some remains were made and sent to experts at Montana State for analysis.

The fossils include a femur from a 6-foot-long, meat-eating dromaeosaur, commonly known as a raptor or running lizard of the genus Deinonychus.

The dinosaur resembles Fred and Wilma Flintstone's fictional doglike creature, Dino. While "The Flintstones" was a cartoon based on the Stone Age, its fantasy animals from the prehistoric past featured dinosaurs as well as saber-toothed tigers and mammoths.

Dromaeosaurs ranged in size from the dimensions of a small dog to up to 30 feet long, according to a fact sheet provided by the Nevada Department of Cultural Affairs. The fact sheet says dromaeosaurs were fierce predators with slashing, clawlike talons. They were swift runners and hunted in packs like lions.

Bonde's team found a tooth from a much larger type of dinosaur, a sauropod, with a long neck and tail. Another tooth, from a tyrannosauroid or ancestor of T-Rex, was found, as were teeth from an iguanodont, a plant-eating tooth-lizard that could have weighed up to eight tons.

Dinosaur eggshell fragments were found in "eight or nine" sites scattered over two miles of the same rock formation, Bonde said.

"All these guys were walking around right along the mountain front," he said.

Bonde said the sites are on public land northeast of the Las Vegas Valley, but the exact locations are being kept secret while work continues to find more dinosaur fossils.

>Bonde said he went looking for evidence of dinosaurs in Southern Nevada after his academic adviser, Dave Varricchio, came across a turtle shell fragment in that area. Bonde later explored the surroundings and found some evidence on the surface related to the time when dinosaurs existed.

"We use the stuff on the surface as a key on the site; then we dig to find better stuff," he said. "In our biggest quarry, we dug only less than a meter deep."

He said some of the fossils were preserved in flood plain deposits, while evidence of ferns were preserved in volcanic ash. Some bits of bones were found in old river channel deposits.

"It's pretty cool because during this time period there was this big mountain-building event," Bonde said, noting that the fossils were preserved "right along the ancestral mountain front" that hadn't eroded.

"I bet if we go out there and look some more, we're going to find more," he said.>

The dinosaurs were probably living in a semi-arid environment at a time when flowering plants were just starting to boom. Grasses hadn't evolved yet, he said.

"In this time period there is a lot going on biologically and geologically," said Bonde, who has a degree in biology from the University of Nevada, Reno, where he also majored in geology.

Dinosaur fossils from about the same time frame, 112 million years ago to 99 million years ago, have been found in England's Isle of Wight, east-central Utah, Montana, Maryland, Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma.

According to Springs Preserve officials, Nevada's state fossil, the ichthyosaur, from a boxcar-size "fish lizard" that swam off an ancient Nevada coast more than 200 million years ago, is a reptile that should not be confused with dinosaurs. Some dinosaurs are reptiles, but not all reptiles are dinosaurs, they said.

Bonde, a Te-Moak Western Shoshone, said he's glad the Nevada State Museum will have the dinosaur fossils for display, "not necessarily because I'm a native American, but because I'm a Nevadan and I want to educate people about this period of time. It's exciting. It feels good to be able to do that."