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Fossil of Ice Age Bison Found in Mojave Desert

June 21, 1990

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ Scientists found the partial skeleton of an Ice Age bison in the Mojave Desert, more evidence that the parched landscape once was forested and crossed by streams, a researcher said Wednesday.

The discovery of the 10,700-year-old fossil in Red Rock Canyon State Park was the first time researchers have found the partial skeleton of a large Ice Age animal in the vast desert, said paleontologist David Whistler, curator of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

Single bones of bison, mammoths, camels and horses had been found previously, along with numerous bones of 25 other species, including frogs, lizards, snakes, shrews, bats, a mountain gopher and lemming-like creatures called voles, he added.

″The desert is no more than 10,000 years old. These fossils, including the bison, reinforce that knowledge,″ Whistler said. ″This further confirms that the desert was once much cooler and much wetter.″

At the time the bison roamed the Mojave, the area was ″a pinyon-juniper scrub forest, like what you’d find in northern Arizona today,″ he said, adding that the types of fossilized creatures indicate the area also had lakes and year-round cold water streams.

Whistler said that on May 27, a single fist-sized vertebra from the bison was spotted in an ancient streambed in the state park by Pam Owen, a paleontology graduate student at California State University, Long Beach.

Scientists then unearthed about one-third of the bison’s skeleton, which was broken in various pieces. The rest of the bison had been exposed by erosion over the ages and had weathered away.

″I’m afraid Mother Nature got about two-thirds of it and we got about one- third,″ Whistler said. ″We’ve got part of the chest, part of a hip, a shoulder blade, a hind leg, and about five isolated teeth.″

Red Rock park officials asked Whistler not to reveal the exact digging site, but he said it was close to State Route 14, the main highway through the park, which is located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles.

The bison’s worn teeth and arthritic bones show it was old when it died, Whistler said, adding that the species went extinct and was different than modern bison.

Radiocarbon dating of fossil wood in the streambed near the bison allowed scientists to determine it died about 10,700 years ago.

Museum spokeswoman Ellen Girardeau said the bison fossils will be used for research and won’t be displayed. They will be moved to Los Angeles late this month.

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