GARDNERVILLE - Bones found by two teenage boys who were riding motorcycles in the Pine Nut Mountains may be those of a 3 million-year-old mastadon.
A retired paleontologist examined the bones on Thursday and said they appeared to date back to the Pliocene epoch, according to Gary C. Bowyer, a historical archaeologist with the Bureau of Land Management.
Derek Prosser and a friend, Dustin Turner, were riding their motorcycles in the Pine Nuts last week when they found the site.
"There was no trail. We were just going up and coming down a hill and we found this hole and found a bone the size of a helmet," said Prosser. "I have to give Dustin the credit. He found it, but we just left and didn't think anything of it."
Bowyer looked over fossilized fragments Prosser brought to his Ruhenstroth residence.
"These are definitely not cow bones," he said. "They're huge."
Prosser, 18, said after thinking about the discovery for a while, the boys returned and started poking around to see what other ancient secrets the hillside might yield.
"I was thinking, 'That bone is huge. It's too big to be any animal - any cow or horse that's crystallized.' We went back and started looking at it and wiping the dust off and then we found all these little bone pieces."
Prosser collected several pieces of bone, including one that resembles a huge ball joint, and took them to his residence where Bowyer looked at them Tuesday before heading to the site.
"I've seen coyote bones and skulls and I knew that these were different," Prosser said.
The bones are sandy colored, striated with amber and smooth to the touch. The broken-off bone which protrudes from the hillside in the Pine Nuts is about 12 inches in diameter.
He also found evidence that he and his friend weren't the only visitors to the site. There was a cup from a convenience store half-filled with a soft drink placed next to a pile of smashed bone fragments.
"It looks like there has been another person up there who just dug a hole in the ground and smashed the bones. It just must have been someone stupid," Prosser said.
Bowyer said the site is being monitored by BLM law enforcement officers.
"I would just as soon leave it in place, but it is being vandalized," he said of the find.
Vertebrate fossils are protected and may only be collected with a permit.
Prosser enlisted the help of Greg and Cindy Lee, the parents of Dustin Lee, a fellow motorcycle enthusiast.
"At first, they thought I was exaggerating," Prosser said, "but when they saw what I had, their jaws just dropped to the ground."
Cindy Lee, realizing the potential historical value and vulnerability of the site, made several telephone calls to verify the find and protect the discovery.
"I must have made a dozen telephone calls and Gary (Bowyer) was the first guy we called who called us back and was really intrigued and felt that the site was significant," Lee said.
She also received information from her daughter, Courtney Lee, a geology major at Brigham Young University, who grew up riding horses in the Pine Nuts.
Cindy Lee said she wants to make sure the site is protected and that Turner and Prosser get the credit for their discovery.
Bowyer praised Prosser, who admits he's more comfortable talking about motorcycles than mastodons.
"He had the sense to pick up those bones and contact somebody," said Bowyer who gave up a day off Tuesday to look at the site. "He and Cindy (Lee) deserve a lot of credit."
Lee said the BLM officials told her that they may organize an "emergency excavation" to remove the bones because the site is close to civilization and could be subject to more tampering and vandalism.
She hopes the boys who found the bones get a chance to help.
Bowyer said this was his first experience with a large animal fossil. A 7.5 million-year-old fossil, identified as a gomphothere, was found south of Yerington in 1995.