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San Bernardino County experts find saber-tooth fossils near Vegas

December 4, 2012 | 11:38 am

The Tule Springs region north of Las Vegas were where saber-tooth cat fossils were found in June; A distal radius — limb bone — from a saber-tooth cat. Source: San Bernardino County Museum.

Smilodon distal radiusPaleontologists from San Bernardino County Museum found fossils of the elusive saber-toothed cat in the Nevada desert north of Las Vegas.

The team from the museum, which is based in Redlands, has spend more than a decade combing through the Las Vegas Wash area in Tule Springs looking for fossils from the Ice Age.

Despite uncovering thousands of fossils at more than 400 sites, the scientists found little evidence of the saber-tooth — Smilodon fatalis — until June, when two broken limb bones were discovered.

"We’re ecstatic," said Kathleen Springer, senior curator at the San Bernardino County Museum and lead scientist on the project. "We knew that they should be there. But they are rare, that’s why we’re so happy.’’

The bones were identified by Eric Scott, the museum's curator of paleontology, who compared them to saber-tooth fossils found at the La Brea Tar Pits to confirm they came from the large Ice Age cat. A radiocarbon analyses dates the fossils to approximately 15,000 years ago.

The San Bernardino County Museum won a grant from the Bureau of Land Management in 2008 to begin the excavation. The museum's paleontologists are experts on the late Pleistocene era, the tail end of the Ice Age, when the Las Vegas Valley was filled with meadows, marshes, flowing springs and rivers, Springer said.

"Just picture Las Vegas looking nothing like it is today," Springer said. "There were conifers on the valley floor. There were herds of beasts wandering around. There was water, and foliage for them to feed upon."

Nearly half the fossil sites found in the wash area contain mammoth fossils, she said. The excavation site is within sight of Las Vegas casinos and new communities that sprouted up in north Las Vegas during the real estate boom before the recession.

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— Phil Willon in Riverside

Photos: The Tule Springs region north of Las Vegas were where saber-tooth cat fossils were found in June; A distal radius — limb bone — from a saber-tooth cat. Source: San Bernardino County Museum.

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