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Fossilized Foot Bone of Extinct Dire Wolf Unearthed in Nevada

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Dec 17, 2012 05:00 AM EST
Dire Wolf
Dire wolf foot bone comparison (Photo : University of Nevada, Las Vegas)

Fossil remains of an extinct wolf species has been unearthed in a wash northwest of Las Vegas.

A team of researchers led by geologist Josh Bonde from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), found the fossil of a foot bone last year during a survey of the Upper Las Vegas Wash.

The foot bone is confirmed to belong to a dire wolf that lived during the late Pleistocene period. The fossil is estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 years old.

The location where the fossil was uncovered is near the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, a site known for its diversity and availability of animal remains that existed during the Ice Age.  

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This new study gives evidence that the dire wolf, an Ice Age mammal, once roamed in Nevada.

"Dire wolves are known to have lived in almost all of North America south of Canada, but their historical presence in Nevada has been absent until now," Bonde said in a statement.

"The Tule Springs area has turned up many species, but it's exciting to fill in another part of the map for this animal and reveal a bit more about the Ice Age ecosystem in Southern Nevada."

Dire wolves are larger relatives of gray wolves. Food scarcity and competition from other wolf species have been attributed to the extinction of the species some 10,000 years ago.

According to the researchers, foot bones of dire wolves look similar to those of gray wolves. They point out that the fossilized foot bones found in a wash belongs to a dire wolf, as abundant fossils of dire wolves have been excavated in similar-aged excavation sites, like the La Brea tar pits, throughout the Southwest.

"This discovery helps flesh out Southern Nevada's Pleistocene ecosystem and shows that there are still important discoveries to be made in the Upper Las Vegas Wash," said UNLV geology professor Steve Rowland, a collaborator with Bonde on the study of local Ice Age fossils.

Rowland suggests that it is important to learn the predatory habits and which species were sensitive to changes in the environment, in order to find out why some species became extinct, while the rest survived.

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