Fossils in Joshua Tree

Color photo of a desert dune landscape as far as the eye can see.
Landscapes containing fossils may not be obvious to the untrained eye.

NPS / Alaina Tocci

National parks are special lands that are designated to permanently protect things that are part of our collective heritage like stunning views, unique wildlife, endangered species, areas of recreation, and wilderness. Seventeen national parks in the United States were created partly to protect the fossils found in them. Joshua Tree National Park is one of these!

For almost 100 years, scientists have known that Joshua Tree National Park contains Pleistocene vertebrate fossils. The Pleistocene Epoch, 11,500 years ago to 2.6 million years ago, represents a time largely before humans were in North America. Throughout the epoch, the park had a different climate than we see today, which supported a different collection of plants and animals. These animals were adapted to colder temperatures and more precipitation. Excavations in the early 2000s greatly expanded our knowledge about which animals used to live here during the last ice age. Scientists uncovered animals like horse, camel, llama, deer, wolf, badger, tortoise, and even Columbian mammoth!
Scientists kneel in the dirt to excavate a mammoth tusk.
Scientists Kathleen Springer and Craig Manker excavate a mammoth tusk in Joshua Tree National Park.

NPS / Eric Scott

When a paleontologist excavates a fossil they can learn many things about the animal; this might include its diet, why and how it died, how long ago it was alive, and they can even discern behaviors like if it was a solitary loner or part of a herd. This information can indicate many other things like the past climate, ecologic community, disease pressure, and species migration. Much of this information comes from the way the fossil is positioned in the ground. Because of this, it is very important to a scientist to properly document a fossil when it is excavated. Ultimately fossil information can help us predict what will happen in the future if we see similar conditions in our modern ecologic community or climate.
A camel jaw (Camelops)
A camel jaw (Camelops) excavated from Joshua Tree National Park.

NPS / Eric Scott

Scientists are still studying fossils in the parks! There are ways you can help.
  • Keep vehicle and foot traffic on approved roads and trails to reduce damage to fossil sites.
  • Do not remove fossils from the parks. This takes away valuable scientific data and destroys our collective heritage.
  • If you find a fossil do not pick it up. Leave it in its original location and orientation and report its GPS location to park staff.
Share with your friends and family what fossils mean to you, to science, and our nation.
A fossilized mammoth tooth wrapped in plastic. The tooth itself looks like a rib cage of parallel lines.
A Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) tooth excavated in Joshua Tree.

NPS / Eric Scott

Foot bone from an ancient llama (Hemiauchenia)
Foot bone from an ancient llama (Hemiauchenia) excavated in Joshua Tree.

NPS / Eric Scott

Last updated: October 31, 2018