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Bones are 3 million years old

by Sheila Gardner

A 3-million-year-old mastodon partially buried in the Pine Nut Mountains east of Gardnerville may be no match for 21st century scavengers.

The site, reported to the Bureau of Land Management by two teen-agers who found the bones while they were motorcycling, is being policed by the agency to protect the remains from vandals.

“The site has been – and is being – vandalized since we visited there,” said Gary Bowyer, historical archeologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Carson City. “Some of the pieces have been removed.”

Bowyer said a field paleontologist told the agency that the bones are those of a mastodon from the early Pliocene epoch, which dates back 10 million years ago. The specimen the boys found is probably 3 million years old, he said.

Bowyer is part of a group of specialists representing University of Nevada, Reno, University of Arizona and the Los Angeles Museum of Natural History who have been studying the Pine Nuts for several years.

The site was reported to the BLM by Derek Prosser and Dustin Turner. The two were motorcycling on March 23 and noticed the bones. Trash and pile of crushed bones indicated that others had found the site as well.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bowyer said. “We want to open it to the public, but we can’t leave it open if the public is going to vandalize it.”

According to BLM regulations, vertebrate fossils – such as the mastodon – may only be collected with a permit because of their relative rarity and scientific importance. All vertebrate fossils collected under a permit must be held in an approved repository. Violators face criminal prosecution.

Bowyer said the agency would seek funding to excavate the site because it is too remote to leave intact.

Prosser collected samples from the site, which he turned over to the BLM once it had been established that the fossilized bones were on agency property.

“We are still giving kudos to Derek,” said Bowyer. “He did the right thing by reporting it.”

Dr. Gary Haynes, chairman of the anthropology department at University of Nevada, Reno, concurred.

“Any kind of fossil find is rare,” Haynes said. “It’s great that he (Derek) told somebody. The attitude on public land is that it really does belong to the rest of the state.”

Haynes said mastodons survived in many parts of North America, but specimens from 3 million years ago are few and far between.

Along with mastodons, the Pine Nuts served as the stomping grounds for giant camels, gophers, squirrels, llamas, deer, two kinds of horses, bears, sloths, rabbits and pigs.

The mastodons ranged in size from 8 to 10 feet at the shoulder and weighed up to six tons. The specimen the boys found last week was probably carried down stream. It’s unlikely the entire skeleton is at the site, experts say. For that to have occurred, the animal would have had to be buried alive.

Compared to modern elephants, mastodons were squat and long in the body. Their hair was coarse and reddish brown. Their teeth were blunt cones used to graze on herbs, shrubs and trees.

The area at the time was wetter and warmer, with lakes and small streams. Features and events from the Pliocene epoch include mountain uplift and cool climate. It’s part of the Tertiary period, when mammals increased in size and numbers. The Pliocene epoch was followed by the Ice Age.