Thousands of years ago, the northern end of Las Vegas Valley held a lush wetland fed by natural springs. Late last month, workers installing an inground pool in a backyard discovered the remains of one of the swamp’s old inhabitants: a large mammal, most likely a horse, Joe Bartels reports for KTNV.
Excavation revealed bones from the animal’s legs, ribs, vertebrae and a jawbone with teeth, David Willimas reports for CNN. The first bones that the workers uncovered were buried between four and five feet underground, under ancient, compressed vegetation, per KTNV. The property is about three miles away from the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, where paleontologists have found hundreds of fossils from the last ice age, reports Katelyn Newberg for the Las Vegas Review-Journal.
The homeowners have delayed the construction of their pool so that scientists can fully excavate the ancient remains for study and preservation at the Nevada Science Center.
“I’d love to find out what it is, and preserve it if we can, before we just go to concrete it up," says Matthew Perkins, who owns the property with his husband, to KTNV.
When the workers who were constructing the pool first discovered the bones, they called the police. Perkins and his husband learned of the discovery only when police showed up to investigate. Within a few minutes, they determined that the bones weren’t human remains, and left it up to the homeowners to decide how to proceed. In the United States, fossil collecting is regulated on public land, but on private property, fossils belong to the property owner.
"[The police] came in, dug up the bone, saw that it was fairly large and at that point told us, 'Too big to be human. Not our concern anymore,'" says Perkins to CNN.
Perkins reached out to paleontologists, museums and universities, but none returned his calls until a local news agency helped connect him with Nevada Science Center paleontologist Joshua Bonde, reports Christina Morales for the New York Times. Excavators had to dig another five feet into the soil in order to uncover the rest of the remains.
“It was an actual skeleton,” says Bonde to the Review-Journal. “The bones were in the leg position attached to one another, which is actually really rare preservation for that area.”
Further excavation turned up a jawbone with its teeth still attached.
The fact that the remains were still connected to each other in the same way as they would have been when the animal was alive suggests that when the animal died, it was quickly covered—likely by mud—and kept out of reach of scavengers, per CNN.
Based on the layers of rock surrounding the bones, Bonde estimates the remains are between 6,000 and 14,000 years old, reports the Times. Two species of horse lived in the region during that timeframe. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey will complete carbon dating on the bones to determine their age; the bones can be considered fossils if they are over 10,000 years old.
Then Perkins intends to loan the bones to the Nevada Science Center for preservation and display.
Bonde hopes the discovery will show other local residents that they could have fossils in their yards, too.
“Fossils don’t care about political boundaries,” says Bonde to the New York Times. “These fossils in dirt are scattered all over the valley and people have been developing on this for decades. It’s only a matter of time until more are found.”