New perspectives on Pleistocene biochronology and biotic change in the east-central Great Basin: an examination of the vertebrate fauna from Cathedral Cave, Nevada
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The interaction between climate, environments, and mammalian faunas during the late Pleistocene-Holocene has been studied intently over the last several decades. Cave deposits play an important role in our understanding of these complex interactions, but they are especially significant for our understanding of the faunal history of the Great Basin. In order to develop a deeper time perspective on mammalian faunal change, I began a project that integrated several elements necessary for identifying and interpreting biotic change in the Great Basin of the western United States. These elements included development of a framework for understanding the importance of cave deposits for the paleontological record, collection of a mammalian fauna that pre-dates the terminal Pleistocene, identification of that fauna in the midst of shifting taxonomic paradigms, and evaluation of the fauna in the context of previous regional biogeographic models. I utilized data from the FAUNMAP database to evaluate the significance of the contribution that cave deposits make to the Pleistocene mammal record. Caves do provide unique faunal data in addition to contributing a high percentage of the individual species records for late Pleistocene mammals. Fieldwork was conducted at Cathedral Cave, NV, in order to assess a fauna that was thought to predate the late Pleistocene-Holocene transition. In excess of 30,000 identifiable fossils were recovered in an excavation area that was roughly 1.5 x 2 x 0.7 m. Prior to fieldwork in 2003, age estimates for the fauna were between 750 ka to 850 ka. New chronologic analyses suggest a more recent age (≤146.02±2.584 ka to 151.2±4.4 ka) that extends the known chronologic distributions of several taxa and alters previously established biochronologic frameworks for the Pleistocene. This work also calls into question previous age assignments for portions of Smith Creek Cave. Individual faunal identifications were made using a conservative data-reliant approach in order to minimize geographic assumptions and render an independent data set useful for broad biogeographic analyses. Although the faunal data presented here do not explicitly support or refute regional biogeographic models, they do indicate that patterns of faunal change can be found even when species-level identification are not achieved.