UNLV researchers make big find with tiny fossil

It resembles a speck of mud on a wafer of black shale, something you might be tempted to scrape off with your fingernail. But the latest discovery by UNLV researchers is no small thing.

When viewed through a scanning electron microscope, the speck blossoms into a spindly, starfish-shaped fossil formed roughly 560 million years ago, before the rise of complex, multicellular animals.

The specimen plucked from a mountainside in Esmeralda County is significant for several reasons, UNLV paleontologist Steve Rowland said: It represents a species of ancient algae never before described but remarkably well-preserved, despite its lack of bones or other hard tissue typically needed to form fossils. And it comes from a crucial but little-understood interval of geologic time, just before the so-called Cambrian explosion that produced most of the world’s major animal groups.

“This is more exciting in the paleontology community than some new dinosaur or something,” said Rowland, who co-authored a paper on the fossil that was published earlier this year in the Journal of Paleontology.

The tiny discovery was an even bigger deal for Margarita Rodriguez.

She was an undergraduate geology student waiting tables to put herself through UNLV in 2012 when she started working with Rowland in a one-credit independent study program.

The work took Rodriguez to Esmeralda County, where she helped collect samples from the Deep Springs Formation, a rock layer Rowland has been exploring for the past 40 years. Her discovery came in the lab as she examined more than 200 pieces of rock under a microscope in search of a different organism. On a jagged disk of shale no larger or thicker than a credit card, Rodriguez trained her lens on a spot about the size of a period drawn with a ballpoint pen.

“It was this weird, branching, gangly thing. We had no idea what it was … but the preservation was fantastic,” she said. “I could see it with the naked eye because for some reason I’m good at seeing micro-fossils.”

Two years later, the 30-year-old is the published author of a scientific paper about a new species she got to name: Elainabella deepspringensis.

Rodriguez said she named her discovery in honor of Elaine Hatch Sawyer, who took her under her wing when she was a troubled teenager and set her on the path to becoming a geologist.

At 17, Rodriguez moved by herself from Ohio to tiny Panguitch Lake, Utah, to work as a wrangler for a ranch that offered trail rides. She was miserable and alone until Sawyer began taking her on road trips to every beautiful spot within a day’s drive. The woman and her husband eventually gave Rodriguez a place to live.

“I can’t describe what she is to me. She saved my life at one point,” Rodriguez said. “She’s become blood family without the blood.”

Now the 2012 graduate of UNLV is again living with Sawyer in Fredonia, Ariz., near the Utah border, helping her old friend through the last awful stages of cancer.

“She was my guardian angel, and now it’s my turn,” Rodriguez said.

The genus name Elainabella literally means “beautiful Elaine.”

Rowland said it’s rare for an undergraduate to make such a discovery, but Rodriguez was “quite a rare student.”

He said her alga probably spent its life attached to a primitive, microbial reef beneath the shallow, tropical sea that covered much of what is now the West Coast at a time when North America straddled the equator.

He expects the area where it was found to yield more, perhaps larger treasures when his research team goes back with picks and shovels to dig a “proper quarry” near the almost-ghost town of Gold Point, 175 miles northwest of Las Vegas.

“So far all the collecting has been pretty casual,” just picking up whatever pieces found on the surface, he said.

In the coming months, one of Rowland’s doctoral students will search for fossils of a small wormlike creature that might be related to ones found in a similar rock strata in China.

Rowland said his student also will be trying to answer a broader question that has confounded geologists: “Why were these fossils preserved at all? They don’t have hard parts. They don’t have shells,” he said.

In the meantime, the first — and so far only — specimen of Elainabella deepspringensis will be permanently housed in the research collection of the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas, where it will be available for other researchers to study.

Contact Henry Brean at hbrean@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0350. Follow @RefriedBrean on Twitter.

Indoor farming in Southern Nevada
Experts discuss Nevada's indoor farming industry. (Bailey Schulz/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Former Fontainebleau could have become a Waldorf Astoria
Months after developer Steve Witkoff bought the Fontainebleau last summer, he unveiled plans to turn the mothballed hotel into a Marriott-managed resort called The Drew. But if Richard “Boz” Bosworth’s plans didn’t fall through, the north Las Vegas Strip tower could have become a Waldorf Astoria with several floors of timeshare units. (Eli Segall/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
New Springs Preserve Exhibit Shows Off "Nature's Ninjas"
"Nature's Ninjas" arrives at the Springs Preserve, in an exhibit and live show featuring critters that come with natural defenses, from armadillos to snakes, poison dart frogs to scorpions and tarantulas (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
CrossRoads of Southern Nevada psychiatric urgent care to open in Las Vegas
Jeff Iverson, who operates the nonprofit sober living facility Freedom House, is opening a private addiction treatment center that will operate a detoxification center and transitional living for substance users trying to recover. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Metro Capt. Jaime Prosser gives update of officer-involved shooting
Metro Capt. Jaime Prosser provides an update about an officer-involved shooting at Radwick Drive and Owens Avenue in the northeast Las Vegas on Thursday. A robbery suspect was shot and killed. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
Wayne Newton surprises burglars
Wayne Newton and his wife, Kathleen, arrived at their southeast Las Vegas home shortly before midnight on Wednesday to find two burglars inside their house. The burglars fled and were seen heading north through the property. Las Vegas police quickly set up a perimeter and launched an extensive search of the area, but the suspects were able to escape. It was unclear if the burglars got away with anything of value. Several items, under the watchful eyes of the police, were seen on the ground near the home's main driveway. Neither Newton, nor his wife, were injured. The Newtons were not available for comment.
Police Officers Turn Off Body Cameras
In four separate body camera videos from the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting released Wednesday, officers in a strike team are instructed to turn their body cameras off and comply with the request.
Debra Saunders reports from Singapore
Las Vegas Review-Journal White House correspondent talks about the historic summit between President Donald Trump and North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un.
How long will North Korea's denuclearization take?
In Singapore, Las Vegas Review-Journal White House correspondent Debra Saunders asks President Donald Trump how long North Korea's denuclearization will take. White House video.
LVCVA purchase of gift cards hidden
A former LVCVA executive hid the purchase of $90,000 in Southwest Airlines gift cards in records at the agency. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, said the money was for promotional events and did not disclose that it was for gift cards. Lawson also instructed Southwest employees to submit invoices without mentioning the purchases were for the cards. More than $50,000 of the cards cannot be accounted for. The convention authority is publicly funded . Lawson recently resigned.
Kim Jong Un visits Marina Bay Sands in Singapore
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his entourage visited the Marina Bay Sands in Singapore briefly Monday night, local time. (Video by Philip Chope)
Coca-Cola Bottle Purse Has 9,888 Diamonds
Designer Kathrine Baumann and jeweler Aaron Shum set the Guinness World Record for most diamonds (9,888) set on a handbag. The Coca Cola bottle-shaped purse was on display at the Coca Cola Store on the Strip. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Sentosa Island a pleasure resort with a pirate past
The site of Tuesday's U.S.-North Korea summit is known for theme parks and resorts. But before that, it was known as a pirate island. (Debra Saunders/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Judge Sandra Pomrenze's comment about girl's hair
Nevada Races Full of Women From Both Sides
It's already been a historic election season for women in politics. Record numbers of women are running for political office all over the country - including Nevada. (Madelyn Reese/ Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
East Las Vegas home damaged by fire
Clark County Fire Department crews responded to a house fire in east Las Vegas Thursday morning. (Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @bizutesfaye
911 call: Mom tries to get to son shot at Route 91
A woman stuck on the interstate during the Route 91 Harvest festival shooting on Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas, tries to get to her son. 911 call released by Las Vegas police.
Las Vegas 911 caller reports people shot on Oct. 1
A 911 caller on Oct. 1, 2017, reports several people shot at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.
911 call from woman under stage in Las Vegas shooting
A 911 call from a woman underneath the stage at the Route 91 Harvest festival during the Oct. 1, 2017, Las Vegas shooting.
LVCVA facing scandal over gift cards
LVCVA is facing a growing scandal over airline gift cards. LVCVA bought $90,000 in Southwest Airline gift cards between 2012 and 2017. Now auditors can’t account for more than $50,000 of the cards. CEO Rossi Ralenkotter and his family used $16,207 in gift cards on 56 trips. Brig Lawson, the senior director of business partnerships, was responsible for buying and distributing the cards. He recently resigned.
Siblings separated in the foster care system get a day together
St. Jude's Ranch for Children and Cowabunga Bay Cares program partnered to bring 75 siblings together for the day to play on the water slides and in the pools at the Henderson water park. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
People flee the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017
Las Vegas police released footage from a camera on Mandalay Bay of the Route 91 Harvest festival on Oct. 1, 2017
Aaliyah Inghram awarded medal of courage
Aaliyah Inghram, a 10-year-old girl who was shot while protecting her 18-month-old brother and 4-year-old cousin during a shooting on May 8, awarded medal of courage. Bizuayehu Tesfaye/Las Vegas Review-Journal @bizutesfaye
Las Vegans Pack Public Lands Open House
A crowd filled the Clark County Library conference room Tuesday afternoon where Clark County officials hold their first -- and possibly only -- public meeting on plans to open almost 39,000 acres of federal land for development just outside the Las Vegas metropolitan area. County commissioners are set to vote June 19 on a potentially controversial resolution seeking federal legislation that would set aside tens of thousands of acres for conservation while giving Nevada’s largest community more room to grow. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Police search Henderson Constable's home and office
Las Vegas police served search warrants Tuesday at Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell's home and office. The investigation was sparked by a Las Vegas Review-Journal story showing Mitchell wrote himself $70,000 in checks, used ATMs at casinos and video poker bars, and traveled to places his adult children live. All using county funds. Police refused to comment but Mitchell's attorney said he did nothing wrong.
Vegas Golden Knights fans shows his colors for community
Vegas Golden Knights superfan Lynn Groesbeck has wrapped his new truck with Knights logos and images. He loves how the Golden Knights are bringing community back to Las Vegas. People stop him on the street to take photos and share his support. (K.M. Cannon/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Las Vegas Acting Coach Daryl Morris on His Craft
Acting coach Daryl Morris, whose father Bobby was Elvis Presley's conductor in Las Vegas, discusses his craft and how he leads his own classes. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Constable wanted county funds to fight Review-Journal investigation
The Las Vegas Review-Journal asked for public records to investigate constable spending. But Henderson Constable Earl Mitchell hired outside counsel to fight the request. And he wanted the county to pay nearly $7,500 for those attorneys. The county declined. And records show the constable's office owes taxpayers $700,000. County officials said the money will be repaid over three years. Mitchell abandoned his re-election before the Review-Journal story ran.
BalanceVille Art Car Rides High Above First Friday
First Friday attendees got to ride in BalanceVille, a Burning Man art car that rises 50 feet in the air on a hydraulic lift. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
Mecum Las Vegas Auction Draws Motorcycle Enthusiasts
Motorcycle enthusiasts descended on South Point Casino Friday for the Mecum Las Vegas Motorcycle Auction, which featured 600 vintage and collectible motorcycles and bikes. The auction is set to return to Las Vegas in January with more than 1,700 lots. (Madelyn Reese/Las Vegas Review-Journal) @MadelynGReese
News Headlines
Home Front Page Footer Listing
You May Like

You May Like