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Fear and Science-ing in Las Vegas: Pygmy Mammoths, Dinosaur Tracks, Fossil Turtle Poop, and a Plague of Grasshoppers

by Bernard K. Means

Just over a week ago I returned from a short-trip to Las Vegas. The “plague of grasshoppers” I saw on the news sadly was done before I arrived, but for a time the insects swarmed the city, attracted to the bright lights and making the sidewalks, as one person noted to me on Facebook, “crunchy.” And, while I did stay in a casino, I did not gamble or go see shows.

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Paleontology Curator Dr. Josh Bonde with a triceratops thoracic vertebra

Instead, I was here for my fourth trip to visit the Las Vegas Natural History Museum (where I am a Research Associate) and work with Paleontology Curator Dr. Josh Bonde, Collections Manager of Natural History Lauren Parry, and Education Director Becky Humphrey.

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Collections Manager of Natural History Lauren Parry with Ice Age animal fossils

So, rather than traipsing about the Las Vegas strip I was in the basement of the museum working in the Richard A. Ditton Learning Lab, the only working paleontology preparation lab in the state and one in which members of the public can interact. Come at the right time, and you might get a chance to hold a real! triceratops vertebra.

 

I’m always happy to work with these great folks and to help further our respective research and public outreach endeavors. When I first arrived, I helped deal with some minor issues with their NextEngine Desktop 3-D scanner and their MakerBot Replicator+.

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With the former, I started by 3-D scanning some dinosaur footprints that were impressed in a very friable stone, both to preserve them and to make them continuously accessible for Becky’s (and others) research. One of the footprints consisted of claw marks made by a dinosaur scraping its feet on what had once been mud. 

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I also used the NextEngine 3-D scanner to scan a baby Columbian mammoth molar for Lauren’s research and to satisfy my own interests in mammalian megafauna. The NextEngine was also used to 3-D scan an Ice Age camel foot bone, a fragment of a 100-million-year-old turtle shell, and a coprolite (poop) from a similarly aged turtle (or, as Amy Czubak via Facebook called a turdle). The most significant fossil I 3-D scanned with the Nextngine was a 63-million-year-old frog skeleton from a species (Eorubeta nevadensis) that survived the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. For details on this frog, see: Henrici, A. C., P. Druschke, R. P. Hilton, and J. W. Bonde. 2018. Redescription and phylogenetic reassessment of the enigmatic anuran Eorubeta nevadensis (Amphibia) based on new specimens from ?latest Cretaceous–Paleocene beds of the Sheep Pass Formation, Nevada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 38(5). DOI: 10.1080/02724634.2018.1510413.

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Dawn Reynoso, an Interpretative Ranger at Ice Age Fossil State Park

With the MakerBot Replicator+ I 3-D printed a number of items scanned at the museum, including an Ice Age horse teeth scanned prior to my visit and also the newly 3-D scanned fossil frog. On the second day of my visit, the Las Vegas Natural History Museum hosted an Ice Age Nevada event. One of the participants was Dawn Reynoso, an Interpretative Ranger at Ice Age Fossil State Park. Dawn was interested in some giant ground sloth feces I had 3-D scanned from Gypsum Cave, Nevada, that is in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution of Natural History. I 3-D printed the coprolite and handed it to Dawn before the event was over. This giant ground sloth poop 3-D scan is freely available at our laboratory’s Sketchfab site.

 

Of course, I did not just rely on the equipment at the museum, but brought one of our lab’s own scanners, the Go!Scan 50.  With this scanner I 3-D scanned saber-toothed cat, Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), and Pygmy mammoths (Mammuthus exilis)….. that’s right, miniature mammoths.  Or, I suppose you could call them micro-Megafauna! For the Pygmy mammoths, I 3-D scanned teeth that are part of Lauren’s dissertation research project. Pygmy mammoths are dwarf versions of Columbian mammoths and stood just under 6 feet tall as adults, as compared to 14 feet tall for Columbian mammoths. The Pygmy mammoths inhabited California’s Channel Islands and represent a case of Island Dwarfism from ancestral populations of Columbian mammoths that swam out to these islands.

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Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

As always, I was energized by working with the great team at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Next time I return, maybe I’ll do it when daytime highs are not around 110 F!

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