Photo Essay: In the Footsteps of the Elephant

A team of UNLV researchers explores the strange landscape known as The Sump, on the hunt for a 12- to 16-million-year-old treasure


One day in mid-March, UNLV paleontologist Joshua Bonde and his mentor, longtime geoscience professor Stephen Rowland, lead a band of students up the belly of The Sump, an expanse of badlands located 250 miles northwest of Las Vegas in Esmeralda County. The Sump lies to the east of White Mountain Range, home to Nevada’s highest point, Boundary Peak, and it is the birth of those mountains that helped to create the area’s unusual geological features.


Bonde watches his footing along the water-sculpted ridges that make The Sump perfect for hunting the bones of animals that have long since vanished from the Silver State. Heavy rains can strip away layers of ground, revealing fossils deposited here millions of years ago— like the strange rocky lump photographed by hiker Phil Compton of Templeton, Calif., in 2012. Compton realized it might be a skull and shared the find with UNLV, which worked with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to secure rights to excavate the find.

As he walks, Bonde talks about the landscape as if he just dismounted from a time machine: “These are 16- to 12-million-year-old sediments that were deposited. At the same time, there is a fault down-dropping this valley. All the whiter and more resistant layers are chock-full of volcanic ash, so we’re right downwind of some sort of active volcanic center. Walking around this landscape was some sort of elephant, and hopefully we’ll find some other critters that were running around with it as well.”


As many of his classmates enjoy traditional spring break destinations, sophomore Andrew Rigney surveys the arid landscape of his own exotic locale. A few days prior he was sitting in a Geomorphology class, talking of landscapes, changes in the earth’s surface, and how drainage patterns can change over time. Now he kneels on hard ground looking for fossils from creatures of long ago. Recalling those recent lessons, he points out evidence that a lake used to occupy this land, and the fault line that came to define The Sump’s destiny.


Bonde logs every bone, tooth or other remnant collected in his journal, describing who found it, when and where (complete with GPS coordinates), along with thoughts surrounding its find. For each entry, a BLM report is in his future.


The group gathers in a ravine to talk about the treasure they’ve examined: a partial skull of a four-tusked, elephant-like creature finally unearthed after millions of years buried in the ever-changing landscape. In its day some 12 to 16 million years ago, this creature most likely would have been surrounded by a lake or beaver ponds, huge redwoods or sequoia, and grassland. But after the birth of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, this area dried up, taking with it species that couldn’t adapt.


Here, a solution is applied to the skull to keep bone fragments in place for transportation.


From left, Bonde and undergraduate students Rigney, Chelsy Salas and Oscar Vazquez build a plaster jacket to protect the skull for its journey to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Such fossil finds used to be sent to out-of-state facilities for study, but Bonde worked with the museum and BLM officials to keep these in state. Once the specimen is stabilized, Bonde and his students will compare its measurements to other known prehistoric elephants.



Bonde, left, and his students toast a successful day of bone hunting with a Great Basin Brewery Ichthyosaur “Icky” IPA.


Evening envelops the landscape in shadows, bringing out features overlooked at high noon. Sculpted by erosion around the base and roots of a giant redwood, this formation tells the tale of a very different landscape. Before the Sierra Nevada Mountains substantially reduced the flow of moisture to the Great Basin, these lands were watery and full of life. The remnants of that life lure the bone hunters millions of years later.


As the sky darkens to a deep blue, the group gathers around a small fire for warmth and chatter. Bonde, standing left, looks pleased with his students and their haul. Graduating with his undergraduate degree from UNR and his Ph.D from UNLV (professor Steve Rowland, seated to his left, was his advisor), Nevada native Bonde only left the state to work on his master’s at Montana State-Bozeman. And his thesis there was on Southern Nevada.

“I’ve always wanted to be a paleontologist since I was a kid growing up in Fallon,” Bonde says. “I have a sense of pride being able to stay in the state, to do what I do, and to advocate for keeping our natural resources here in Nevada for our citizens to enjoy. And not just to enjoy, but also to learn from and to get an appreciation for the deeper history of our state.”


Tonopah, Nev., The Sump’s nearest sizable town, trumpets its clear, dark skies to tourists. (“More stars than you could ever imagine,” one website touts.) But here, an hour deeper into the Central Nevada night, the team finds stars unseen by most who call this state home. Graduate student Fabian Hardy tries his best to capture images of the Milky Way galaxy as seen over the White Mountain Range.

The public is invited to visit the Las Vegas Natural History Museum’s paleontology lab and observe Bonde and his team at work. The lab is open most Saturdays; for more information, call (702) 384-3466.