Researchers Uncover Dire Wolf Fossils Near Las Vegas
December 18, 2012

Researchers Uncover Dire Wolf Fossils Near Las Vegas

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV) researchers announced that they have discovered fossil remains from a dire wolf, revealing the first confirmation that the extinct predator once stalked the Silver State.

UNLV geologist Josh Bonde found the wolf´s metapodial (foot bone) last year while surveying the Upper Las Vegas Wash, located just northwest of Las Vegas. They were later able to confirm that the bone is between 10,000 and 15,000 years old and comes from a dire wolf, an extinct, larger relative of the grey wolf.

The fossil was discovered near Tule Springs, a fossil-rich area recognized for its range and abundance of Ice Age animal remnants. Most dire wolf fossils are found almost 300 miles away in the La Brea tar pits and in other states in the southwestern U.S.

“Dire wolves are known to have lived in almost all of North America south of Canada, but their historical presence in Nevada has been absent until now,” Bonde, a UNLV geology professor, said in a statement. “The Tule Springs area has turned up many species, but it´s exciting to fill in another part of the map for this animal and reveal a bit more about the Ice Age ecosystem in Southern Nevada."

Foot bones of the extinct dire wolf are difficult to distinguish from those of the gray wolf and the UNLV team called in dire wolf expert Xiaoming Wang of the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History to properly identify the find.

“This discovery helps flesh out Southern Nevada´s Pleistocene ecosystem and shows that there are still important discoveries to be made in the Upper Las Vegas Wash,” said UNLV geology professor Steve Rowland, who collaborated with Bonde. “To understand why certain species became extinct and others did not, we need to learn as much as possible about predatory habits and which species were especially sensitive to changes in the environment.”

According to Rowland, Tule Springs was a spring-fed, swampy area during the last Ice Age, making it an ideal location for predators like the big wolf.

“Tule Springs likely had the highest density of large animals in the area during the Late Pleistocene, and the marshy environment was very good for preserving at least some of the bones and teeth of animals that died there,” said Rowland.

The discovery of the wolf fossil marks 50 years since scientists initiated a ℠big dig´ at Tule Springs, which made the site famous in certain circles for its Ice Age fossils.

“In the 50 years since the ℠big dig,´ the scientists have confirmed that humans interacted with Ice Age animals,” Rowland added. “We now have a new list of questions about life and death in the Pleistocene, and a new tool kit of research techniques to help us get the answers.”

Bonde has been working in the Tule Springs area since 2007, discovering the dire wolf remains on the same parcel of land where the ℠big dig´ began. His group of researchers continues to survey the area for more fossils.

Meanwhile, the dire wolf bone will be cataloged, studied, and stored at UNLV.