Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (TUSK) - Trip Notes for 03/07/2018

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This page last updated on 03/29/2018
(Fig. 01)
Description of the Site:  In total, the Tule Springs Fossil National Monument is approximately 27 miles long, ranging from 1 mile to 7 miles across. Its 22,650 acres lies along the north edge of the Las Vegas Valley and abuts private and public lands all along the southern edge below the Sheep Mountain Range. The monument shares its northern boundary with the Desert National Wildlife Range, the largest wildlife refuge in the lower 48 states. Its morphology follows the path of the Las Vegas Wash which flows southeastward from Corn Creek flat into the Las Vegas Valley and onward into Lake Mead. The purpose of our hiking in this post, is the 1,000 plus acres that contains the majority of past and present archaeological digs, and is referred as the Tule Springs Archaeological Site (Fig. 02). The boundaries of the Tule Springs Archaeological Site is a archaeological site that was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on April 20, 1979. More specific, the area we have hiked is the 315 acre section of land within the Tule Springs Archaeological Site that was originally a piece of State of Nevada land that was under the oversite of the BLM (Refer to Fig. 02A).

(Fig. 02)

03/07/2018 Trip Notes This was our second hike of this area, however, this time we had two hiking guides from POTS (Protectors of Tule Springs). Our guides were Sandy Croteau and Helen Mortenson, shown above (Fig. 01). These two people provided us with a wealth of information on the past and current archaeological diggings in the this area. Refer to the map in (Fig. 02A) to see the route we hiked today. They started out by taking us to the historic camp site that was used during the "Big Dig" of 1962 (Fig. 04). The geologists, archaeologists and paleontologists that were part of the "Big Dig" camped here in tents for nearly four months. As we continued hiking across the bare desert wash (Fig. 05) they pointed our how some of the topography and the soils had been created over past several thousand years.

(Fig. 02A)

It was also pointed out that this area provides a home for several rare and imperiled species, the most popular being the Las Vegas Bearpoppy, a magnificent plant with hairy silver leaves and striking yellow-orange flowers when in bloom. Though it was still a little too early for them to be in bloom, we did find several examples of the endangered plant (Fig. 06). This rare plant is protected as critically imperiled under Nevada State law and would easily merit protection under the federal Endangered Species Act should state law prove inadequate. Read more about this endangered plant here ... Caifornia Bearpoppy (Arctomecon californica). It is also one of only a dozen or so places on the planet where the  Las Vegas Buckwheat occurs.  This plant has been found to be warranted for protection under the Endangered Species Act and is awaiting final actions by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

As they led us around the archaeological site they took us to some of the trenches that had been bulldozed more than 50 years ago. Some of these (trenches) are very difficult to recognize today due to the fact that some were partially filled in, or their walls have eroded and caved in due to weather and rain. Because today's archaeologists and paleontologists make it a point to try and disguise active digs to prevent visitors from digging and trying to steal fossils, it is very hard to recognize active paleontological sites, and noted that hikers should stay away from active sites and never collect fossils in this area. If you don't know what to look for, visitors can easily damage these sensitive areas. We would have never recognized some of the fossil fragments they point out to us as we hiked along (Fig. 08). Even picking up a fossil and then replacing it where you found it will leave DNA that will hinder researchers in trying to establish accurate records. The rule of thumb is "don't touch the fossil. You can photograph it, GPS it and then send the information to the paleontological team."

(Fig. 03) Mounted skeleton,
Sternberg Museum of Natural History
They took us to Trench A (Figs. 05 & 07), from the Big Dig of 1962, just north of the Horse Drive/Aliante Parkway intersection, the site of a 2012 excavation that uncovered a fossilized foot bone from a dire wolf (Fig, 03). The dire wolf is an extinct species of the genus Canis. It is one of the most famous prehistoric carnivores in North America, along with its extinct competitor, the sabre-toothed cat Smilodon fatalis. The dire wolf lived in the Americas during the Late Pleistocene epoch. They weighed on average 132 lb and had large teeth with a greater shearing ability, and its bite force at the canine tooth was the strongest of any known Canis species. These characteristics are thought to be adaptations for preying on Late Pleistocene megaherbivores, and in North America its prey are known to have included horses, ground sloths, mastodons, bison, and camels. (Trip Notes con't below)
(Fig. 04)
(Fig. 05)
(Fig. 06)
(Fig. 07)
(Fig. 08)

Trip Notes Continued: As we continued to explore some of the old trenches (Figs. 09 & 10) our guides took us to an area where we could see a fossilized portion of a tusk (Fig. 11). It was the highlight of our day.

During the "Big Dig", researchers hoped to crack the case of finding proof of human habitation with heavy equipment — one of the biggest bulldozers in the world at the time. Under the direction of the Nevada State Museum — and with funding from the National Science Foundation — almost 2 miles of trenches were carved through the hills in the wash. They explained that because no link to habitation was found during the 60's, many saw the project as “a horrendous boondoggle”. However, history would remember it for advancing the young science of radiocarbon dating and eventually paving the way for the creation of Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument in December 2014. Willard Libby, the father of radiocarbon dating and winner of the 1960 Nobel Prize in chemistry, devoted his lab at UCLA full time to analyzing samples from the dig. Someone from the lab made weekly visits to the site to collect material for carbon-14 dating. Haynes said they would get preliminary results back in as little as 48 hours, speedy even by today’s standards. Even today no one can point to definitive evidence that humans and ice age animals ever coexisted in what is now Southern Nevada. Though science still can’t adequately explain why most of the largest ice age animals on Earth suddenly died out about 11,000 years ago, a lot of that story is related to climate change, and so since climate change is such an important buzz word these days, and it's an important concept for us to recognize. The good news is that the science has come a long way in the past 50 years, and there is much more work to be done, and more and new information is being discovered every day. No matter where you hike here, it is impossible not to think about the millenniums of history just a few feet below where you stand.

Now the sad part. Damage and vandalism being performed on a daily basis. There have be instances where people have randomly spray painted the walls of some of the trenches. Some people have cut the fences surrounding the monument's boundaries along the roads. They have ridden bikes and  motorcycles all over some areas of the archaeological site. We saw tracks that were new since our visit of only a few weeks ago. People have been caught with picks and shovels trying to dig up and steal fossils. Even though the National Park Service has installed cameras in some areas, people blatantly ignore the rules of this National Monument.
(Fig. 09)
(Fig. 10)
(Fig. 11)