Spring 2013

Wolf Hunt

By Amy Leinbach Marquis
Photograph by © MARK HALLETT PALEOART/SCIENCE SOURCE

Paleontologists stumble on ancient wolf remains in Tule Springs.

Saber-tooth fangs. Demonic green eyes. Five feet tall and 600 pounds of solid muscle, lurking in the darkness before ripping apart its prey. For centuries, folklore has painted the dire wolf as a monstrous, bigger-than-life villain. But a recent discovery in Tule Springs, Nevada—fossil-rich land that could become America’s next national monument—offers new evidence that will help tell the real story of the Ice-Age canine. On a boiling-hot day last June, Josh Bonde was conducting an ongoing excavation in the state-owned parcel of Tule Springs, north of Las Vegas. “I came around a corner and saw a little hand bone sticking out of the side of the cliff,” says the University of Nevada–Las Vegas paleontology professor. “Dire wolves are the most common carnivore in the Ice Age in all of North America, but for whatever reason, we hadn’t found any evidence of them in Nevada. So I was pretty jazzed.”

MOVE OVER, ROVER

The very same month Bonde confirmed his dire wolf fossils, a team of paleontologists from California’s San Bernardino County Museum announced their discovery of two front leg bones of a saber-tooth cat nearby. For nearly a decade, the team has unearthed the remains of mammoths, camels, horses, and other ancient grazers, but this was the first time they came across such a high-profile predator. “We knew it had to be there,” Kathleen Springer, senior curator for the museum, told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “There was all this amazing lunch everywhere.”

Fossils like these paint a picture of ancient wolves that were no taller than gray wolves, only stockier, with large heads and enormous teeth likely used to crack bone. Dire wolves appeared to be social animals, and according to some findings, might have even nursed injured pack members back to health, prolonging lives that surely would have been cut short had they been solitary creatures.

The bones also reveal a Pleistocene-Era ecosystem in balance: plentiful herds of mammoths, bison, and camels grazing on lush landscapes—and carnivores like the dire wolf to keep populations in check.

But discoveries like this could be lost if Tule Springs doesn’t gain greater protection, which is why NPCA and a diverse group of advocates in the Las Vegas community have teed up legislation to designate nearly 23,000 acres as a national monument managed by the National Park Service. Even though the Bureau of Land Management recently staved off residential construction on 11,000 acres of the land, historic treasures remain vulnerable to theft, recreational off-road vehicles, and future development.

“It would be devastating to lose even a single bone buried at Tule Springs,” says Lynn Davis, senior program manager for NPCA’s Nevada Field Office. “Scientists just keep churning out new and exciting findings, and those findings are driving the vision of what this new national monument can be. We expect the site will draw both international scientists and tourists looking for yet another reason to visit Las Vegas.”

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