Excitement dies down after mastodon find
The television cameras are gone, the nosy newspaper reporters and photographers have moved on to other stories, even the mastodon bones have been removed. Life in the Pine Nuts is about back to normal.
And that’s good news to Derek Prosser, 18, who would rather be riding his motorcycle over the rugged terrain than fielding questions about the 3-million-year old bones he and a friend found a month ago in the mountains south of Gardnerville.
Under the direction of University of Nevada, Reno experts, a team of volunteers carefully removed the bones on Saturday for further study and to protect the find from vandalism. The bones will be examined and possibly displayed at the W.M. Keck Museum at the Mackay School of Mines at UNR.
“We have the front leg, from the shoulder down to the foot,” said Thomas Lugaski, curator of the museum. He and his colleagues from the UNR geology department supervised about 20 volunteers of all ages Saturday.
“At this point, we don’t know if there is any more there that we can see. It would be nice if we could find the whole thing, but they die and disintegrate,” Lugaski said.
Finding the entire mastodon is somewhat akin to winning Megabucks, he said, adding that a gambler has a better chance.
“It’s the Christmas surprise, figuring out what you are going to find,” he said.
The site is on Bureau of Land Management property, and the agency escorted the media Saturday to watch the excavation.
– May be displayed. Lugaski said if enough bones are recovered they will be displayed at the museum.
“The problem is if you have big bones, you need a big place to display them,” he said.
In its heyday, the mastodon roamed North America from at least 3-1/4 million to 10,000 years ago. Fully grown, they stood 8 to 10 feet at the shoulder and weighed between four and six tons.
“There aren’t that many large mammals found in Nevada simply because there were fewer around to be fossilized,” Lugaski said. “Smaller animals like camels moved in big herds, but as the animal gets larger, it’s much more difficult to preserve it.”
As an added bonus Saturday, excavators found a couple of prehistoric camel teeth.
“All the volunteers had a great time,” Lugaski said. “Usually, the kids wouldn’t be involved in something like this. They like to get involved as much as possible.”
The BLM used Saturday’s excursion to re-emphasize the importance of reporting such finds, as Prosser did.
“Probably most people would have ignored the bones or taken them for themselves,” Lugaski said. “Too often, these things get destroyed. I wish more people would do what Derek did. It’s basically the public that owns these things. When they are not preserved, the public loses out.”
Patricia Cashman and her husband, James Trexler, both associate geology professors at UNR, took their children to the site.
Cashman said the scientists also study the soil for an environmental snapshot.
“The animal tells you the age. You study the sediment, and the rocks tell you what the environment was like. It was wetter here than it is now. The Sierra was not as high then. There was more foliage – the mastodons would have eaten through all this in no time. The environment wasn’t like this,” she said.
– No scavenging. BLM historical archaeologist Gary Bowyer, who led the media tour, used the opportunity to remind people to report finds to the agency, and that it is illegal to scavenge.
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.
Along with mastodons, the Pine Nut mountain range was home to giant camels, gophers, squirrels, llamas, deer, two kinds of horses, bears, sloths, rabbits and pigs.
Compared to modern elephants, mastodons were squat and long in the body. Hair was coarse and reddish brown. Their teeth had 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 cooling climate. Mammals increased in size and numbers during the Tertiary period. The Pliocene epoch was followed by the Ice Age.
Prosser and his mother, Lisa, were invited to the excavation Saturday where he was interviewed for television and talked with reporters.
Lisa Prosser said she found herself acting as the 18-year-old’s press agent in the past month. Stories about Derek’s find appeared in newspapers all over Nevada and in the Los Angeles Times and Sacramento Bee. He was even featured in a segment of the Paul Harvey radio report.
Now that the mastodon bones are gone, Prosser hopes he’ll have more time to devote to his true passion – motorcycle racing – without worrying if CNN is calling for an interview. He estimated he spends 15 to 20 hours a week riding through the labyrinth of dirt roads in the Pine Nuts. He paid the price, too, estimating that he’s broken almost every bone in his body.
“All this stuff,” he said Saturday as he looked over the site, “it hasn’t changed me.”