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On Display

UNLV partnership with Las Vegas Natural History Museum turns professors and students into live exhibit.

Business & Community  |  Nov 19, 2013  |  By Shane Bevell

UNLV professor Joshua Bonde at the Natural History Museum. (Aaron Mayes/UNLV Photo Services)

When a group of avid hikers found an odd-looking object at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park in August, they knew just who to ask: Josh Bonde, ’12 Ph.D. Geoscience.

The UNLV paleontologist has made it his mission to make science accessible to his fellow Nevadans. In 2012, Bonde developed an open paleontology lab at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum, essentially turning the him and his UNLV students into a living exhibit. Visitors can watch the scientists work on projects, hold real dinosaur bones, ask questions, and bring in their own treasures to be identified.

The bone those hikers found? Turned out to be vertebrae from a 230-million-year-old crocodile-type animal, the oldest land animal ever found in Nevada. They left the bone in place, as Bonde recommends, but sent him a photo. Bonde’s team went to the park and subsequently found two more vertebrae fossils. They analyzed the layer of rock in which the bones were uncovered to determine they were from the late Triassic period.

The fossils soon will be on display at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. Since 2004, Bonde has worked to keep fossils found on state land in Nevada. Historically, fossils have been sent out of state for curation.

“This is a great example of local entities working together, at no expense to the taxpayer, for the benefit of the preservation of Nevada’s natural heritage and educational materials,” says Bonde, who grew up in Fallon and is a member of the Te-Moak Band of Western Shoshone. “That way our students don’t have to go to Southern California to learn about fossils from our own backyard.”

Most adults receive science education informally through libraries, museums, and TV, which is why Bonde believes it is important for scientists to be involved in community outreach. He's also concerned about the next generation of scientists.

“The museum has nearly 100,000 visitors a year, many from at-risk or underserved schools,” he says. “If I can do something that is going to make a guest’s visit to the museum more enriching and perhaps inspire a kid to pursue the sciences, then I have done my job,” says Bonde, whose own memorable visit to a museum as a kid inspired him to become a paleontologist.

Bonde and fellow geoscientist Steve Rowland formed the Nevada Friends of Paleontology group at UNLV in 2007. Now the group is integrated into the museum, with Bonde and Rowland as advisers. They train laypeople to be official volunteers, working alongside scientists and UNLV students, on paleontology projects.

The geoscience department also works with the Nevada Division of State Parks to conduct paleontological surveys at no charge.  

More: The Paleontology Lab is typically open Saturdays at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.