Current Research in the Pleistocene, vol. 4, pp. 107-109 (1987).
Initial Investigation of Vertebrate Remains from Snake Creek Burial Cave, White Pine County, Nevada

Timothy H. Heaton

Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA 02138

Snake Creek Burial Cave is located 4 km west of Garrison, Utah and 16 km east of Wheeler Peak Scenic Area at an elevation of 1731 m. It is mislabeled as Snake Creek Cave on the USGS Garrison 15' Quadrangle and other maps based on it (Halliday 1957). The entrance is a 3 m diameter sinkhole that funnels down 2 m to a 1 m diameter hole. This hole leads to a 13 m drop into the middle of an 18 m diameter chamber, so the cave acts as a natural trap. The area directly below the entrance is wet, rocky, and littered with carcasses of animals that have fallen into the cave. Other parts of the cave contain finely stratified muds and dry dust deposits which also contain animal remains, probably due to transport by wood rats.

Halliday (1957) mapped the cave and described its geology. Three test pits have been dug by an unknown investigator in moist sediments in the low, western end of the entrance chamber where rain water collects. Barker and Best (1976) reported a wolverine (Gulo luscus) cranium from the cave. Mead and Mead (1985) dug a test pit from which extinct camel (Camelops) and horse (Equus) were recovered, and they are currently planning a large-scale paleontological excavation.

This study describes a small sample of bones collected in 1981 from a cavity in the extreme southern corner of the entrance chamber. Bones were removed by hand from shallow dry dust in an elevated area where water never reaches. The following material has been identified and cataloged (Brigham Young University Vertebrate Paleontology 9629-9662). More complete descriptions of birds and mammals recovered from caves in this region can be found in Emslie and Heaton (1986) and Heaton (1985).

Two birds have been identified from the Snake Creek Burial Cave material. Swainson's hawk (Buteo swainsoni) is represented by a complete right tibiotarsus and sage grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus) by a left tibiotarsus missing its proximal end. The vast majority of bones recovered are of mammals. The best represented animal is white-tailed jackrabbit (Lepus townsendii). Material consists of skull parts including two palates, four right dentaries, and eight left dentaries, most of which are too large to be black-tailed jackrabbit (L. californicus), the only other species of Lepus living in the area. Two P/3's are included which show very little crenulation, also indicative of L. townsendii. There is also a single toothless palate of cottontail that compares well in size with Nuttall's cottontail (Sylvilagus nuttallii) and desert cottontail (S. audubonii), especially with the smaller S. nuttallii.

Among the rodent remains is a single nearly complete skull of Townsend's ground squirrel (Spermophilus townsendii) including a complete palate without teeth. This species is distinguished by its small size and large masseteric tubercles. There is also a toothless right maxilla of marmot (Marmota flaviventris). The best represented rodent is wood rat (Neotoma). A nearly complete skull (both M1/'s) represents desert wood rat (N. lepida) based on its small size and very shallow anterior reentrant angle on M1/. Two partial skulls, a palate, and two right dentaries represent the larger bushy-tailed wood rat (N. cinerea). Two M1/'s are included in this material, and both have a deep anterior reentrant angle characteristic of N. cinerea.

This collection contains an unusually high proportion of carnivores. Red fox (Vulpes vulpes) is represented by the posterior part of a skull including the complete braincase and probably by another skull cap as well. The distinct shape of the sagittal crest and diverging temporal lines identifies this species. The smaller kit fox (V. velox) is represented by a right dentary (P/3-4, M/1-2) and a juvenile left dentary (P/3-4, partially erupted C/1 and M/1). The lack of a "step" on the posteroventral margin of the dentaries distinguish them from gray fox (Urocyon), the other fox living in the region.

Weasel (Mustela) is represented by two nearly complete skulls (right P3-4/, M1/, left P2-4/, M1/; right P4/, M1/, left P2,4/, M1/) and the anterior part of another skull (right P4/, M1/). All compare best in size with long-tailed weasel (M. frenata) but are only slightly larger than short-tailed weasel (M. erminea). The ratio of maxilla length to skull length is slightly smaller in M. erminea than in M. frenata, and these skulls compare best with M. frenata in this respect also. The largest specimen collected is a complete skull of bobcat (Lynx rufus; right I3/, broken C1/, P3-4/, left I3/, P4/). This skull is slightly smaller than comparative specimens of L. rufus and distinctly smaller than lynx (L. canadensis).

No bones of extinct animals were found in this study, but the assemblage is typical of late Pleistocene cave faunas in the Great Basin. Lepus townsendii, Marmota flaviventris, Neotoma cinerea, and Vulpes vulpes were recovered which now tend to live only at higher elevations in the Snake Range but which definitely lived as low as the cave during the Pleistocene (Heaton 1985). Deeper sediments in the cave will certainly provide a rich Pleistocene fauna. One problem is that the area where most bone is deposited is also where rockfall and water are most likely to destroy it. But the large chamber containing a variety of depositional environments and active bone transporters (wood rats) holds great promise as a paleontological site.

References Cited

Barker, Marcus S., Jr., and Troy L. Best 1976 The wolverine (Gulo luscus) in Nevada. Southwest Naturalist 21(1):133.

Emslie, Steven D., and Timothy H. Heaton 1986 The Late Pleistocene avifauna of Crystal Ball Cave, Utah. Journal of the Arizona-Nevada Academy Science 21(2).

Halliday, William R. 1957 The Snake Creek Caves, White Pine County, Nevada. Salt Lake Grotto Technical Notes 2(39):38-46.

Heaton, Timothy H. 1985 Quaternary paleontology and paleoecology of Crystal Ball Cave, Millard County, Utah: with emphasis on mammals and description of a new species of fossil skunk. Great Basin Naturalist 45(3):337-390.

Mead, Jim. I, and Emilee M. Mead 1985 A natural trap for Pleistocene Animals in Snake Valley, eastern Nevada. Current Research in the Pleistocene 2:105-106.

Timothy H. Heaton: E-mail, Home page, Phone (605) 677-6122, FAX (605) 677-6121