SciSun: Hard Rock in Las Vegas   Leave a comment

Las Vegas, Nevada, is a growing city. Every month thousands of people move to the area; dozens of businesses open; and each year the metropolis spreads further and further into the desert. This is pretty amazing (or depressing) for a city that’s literally in the middle of a region where there’s very little water; has virtually no farms or food resources; temperatures vary from below freezing to well over 100 degrees; and is hundreds of miles away from almost any other city. And usually the shrimp buffets aren’t all that good, either.

But it wasn’t always this way. As recently as 100 years ago, Las Vegas was a lonely railroad water-refill station (well, that’s ironic!) between California and the agricultural and ranching lands to the East. The native desert environment flourished as it had for thousands of years, with native Coyotes (Canis latrans) howling; Burrowing Owls (Athene cunicularia) hooting; waterbirds like the Western Grebe (Aechmophorus occidentalis) honking; and countless lizards from the Chuckwalla (Sauromalus ater) to Gilbert, the Skink. Or rather, the Gilbert Skink (Plestiodon gilberti).

And before that, 20,000 years ago (part of the Pleistocene era, in geologic time), the species, and the land itself, was different than anything we can imagine today when looking at the harsh desert landscape. During that period – part of the ‘Ice Age’ – thick grasses and numerous flowering plants that are now rare or extinct covered the land. Juniper forests provided shade, nesting sites, and food for an abundance of wildlife. Rainfall was plentiful, so streams, marshes and wetlands fed into the giant Lake Lohantan and its richness in aquatic life. Mammoths, giant ground sloths, camels and horses (which are actually native to North America) were hunted by wolves, sabre-tooth cats, and early man.

Today most of the hunting is done by casino guests looking for a winning slot machine (or a good shrimp buffet!); but there are so many guests and visitors and residents of Las Vegas the city has been attempting to annex the nearby Upper Las Vegas Wash – a 10,000 acre desert generally considered wasted space by city planners and businesses looking to expand – and finding this ‘bare wasteland’ is not only a living desert environment; but buried just a few inches underground is an unknown history of Southern Nevada, and a lesson for us on environmental change and species extinction.

At center, the recently-discovered fossilized tusk of a Mammoth.  At top, not the fossilized shoes of a Mammoth.

At center, the recently-discovered fossilized tusk of a Mammoth. Top, not the fossilized shoes of a Mammoth.

The BLM – Bureau of Land Management – is the US governmental agency responsible for much of the vacant land in the Western US. Before any large land developments can proceed, the BLM must research and certify there is nothing of historical or cultural value on the land. This is to prevent important artifacts or sites from being destroyed by over-eager bulldozer operators. And when investigating the Upper Las Vegas Wash, scientists found things they never thought possible in the area – fossils (ancient plant and animal material that over time turned to rock, or left evidence of itself in rock) of prehistoric plants and mammals, including the rare Sabre-tooth cat Smilodon fatalis; signs of environmental change and water and soil patterns; and evidence of the tools and campsites of early man. In fact, there are so many artifacts still being found and continuing research underway, the entire area is being considered for a future National Monument. And 20,000 years from now, that’s probably a greater distinction than anyone can say about a shrimp buffet.


Michonne Says: Where’s the fuzzelized history of Marmots? Marmots have a long history. Just last week I dug a new tunnel.

Posted July 14, 2013 by ECOVIA eco-adventure® in SciSun

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