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Howell's Ridge Cave

NM: Grant Co.: NW 1/4 SW 1/4 SEC. 32, T27S, R16W. 1675 M.

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Location of Howell's Ridge Cave.Age. Wisconsin/Holocene; see Table 1 and discussion.

Synonyms. Little Hatchet Mountain Cave (Howard 1964); Hachita Cave (Bochenski and Campbell 2006).

General Description. UTEP 32. Vertical chimney in U-Bar Limestone opening laterally to near the base of the cliff face; northern exposure.

Fig. 1 (below). Google Earth image of Howell's Ridge (diagonal ridge in foreground) and the general setting to the south. Howell's Ridge Cave is near the center of the ridge at the base of the caprock. The Little Hatchet Mountains continue southward from Howell's Ridge and the Big Hatchet Mountains are prominent near the top of the image. The line just above the middle of the image is the county line between Hidalgo (to the south) and Grant counties. The yellow line marks the U.S./Mexico border.

Google Earth image of Howell's Ridge and the area to the south

Discussion. The first publication on faunal remains from this site were by Howard (1962), who reported on bird remains recovered by Dr. Robert A. Zeller, Jr. Zeller's test excavation was about 3 feet deep, with a diameter of around 5 feet; bedrock was not reached. Most bones were stated as having come from a depth of about 1 foot. He also noted pieces of charcoal and flint chips.

Van Devender and Worthington (1977:85) indicated that their stratigraphic column was undisturbed: "... a 1.8-m (5.9-ft) stratigraphic column in undisturbed cave fill is reported here." They noted five radiocarbon dates from three levels and, from these, extrapolated dates for the remaining levels (their Table 1). Their dates ranged from contemporary at the surface to an estimated 11,541 BP at the 170-180-cm level; their oldest radiocarbon date was 6820 ± 550 BP (Table 1). They also mentioned a date on condor bone of 13,460 ± 220 BP; this date was reported elsewhere (Van Devender and Wiseman 1977) as 13,640 ± 220 BP. Emslie (1987) repeats the last date, but as a personal communication from Van Devender.

Van Devender and Worthington (1977) interpreted the herptile remains as likely indicating no major floral structural or compositional changes, though a floral depression in elevation was likely. They inferred from the record of Ambystoma tigrinum (= A. mavortium) that Playas Lake, some 13 km to the west, was wet until about 4-5 ka (levels 170-180 to 90-100 cm) and wet again at about 3 ka and at somewhat less than 1 ka. They also noted that herptiles considered relatively mesic increased with depth.

Several problems arise with the Van Devender-Worthington interpretation. Harris and Smartt (Harris 1985; Smartt 1977), excavating earlier, but nearby, thought at the time of excavation that the deposits were disturbed (Harris' field notes for 23 Oct. 1971 state, "Impression is of material having been thoroughly scrambled, perhaps from pack rats burrowing"). The UTEP test pit is a northward extension of Zeller's test and is located near the back wall of the chimney. Excavation was to a depth of 1.34 m (Smartt 1977).

Not noted (and perhaps not available at the time) in the 1977 Van Devender and Worthington paper (which was based on a symposium presentation in 1974) were three additional dates (Van Devender and Wiseman 1977) that add credence to the belief that there has been profound disturbance. These dates, from lower in the stratigraphic column than those presented by Van Devender and Worthington (1977) are all less than 5,000 ka (Table 1) and were noted by Van Devender and Wiseman as questionable. Radiocarbon dates from Howell's Ridge CaveAside from the observational inferences and the out-of-place dates, faunal evidence from birds and mammals also indicate that Van Devender and Worthington's dates are unreliable. One extralimital form, the California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) was identified from the 80-90-cm level. Although Van Devender and Worthington (1979) speculate that the condor may not have become extinct until well into the Holocene, available dates (Emslie 1987) suggest otherwise. At and below the 110-120-cm level, other taxa unlikely to be late survivors in the region appear: Sylvilagus nuttallii at 110-120, Cryptotis parva at 120-130, Lepus townsendii at 130-140, etc.

Table 1. Radiocarbon dates from Howell's Ridge Cave. After Harris (1985). Dates (except A-1557 from Emslie) from Van Devender and Wiseman (1977).

The most likely situation at Howell's Ridge Cave is that there has been bioturbation throughout the period of deposition, resulting in a smearing of the record. That is, a zone of disturbance moved upward with the continued deposition of material, so that older material was moved upwards and younger downward within the zone. As the surface became more distance from any given level, the disturbance at that level ceased except for major events (pack rat burrows, etc.). The result is that any given level includes somewhat older and somewhat younger material along with material of the actual age of deposition. The argument was made by Harris (1985) that, since most plant materials were decayed in the moist, lower layers (Van Devender and Worthington 1977), plant material that was not decomposed was mostly younger material introduced relatively recently and thus biasing the dates to far too young.

Harris (1985) interpreted the Pleistocene environment as primarily grassland with some sagebrush and likely open coniferous forest or woodland on sheltered slopes.

Fauna

Amphibia

Ambystoma mavortium—Barred Tiger Salamander (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Scaphiopus couchii—Couch's Spadefoot (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Spea bombifrons—Plains Spadefoot (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Spea multiplicata—Mexican Spadefoot (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Anaxyrus sp. (large)—True Toads (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Anaxyrus debilis—Green Toad (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Anaxyrus punctatus—Red-spotted Toad (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Lithobates pipiens—Leopard Frog (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Hyla arenicolor—Canyon Treefrog (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)

Reptilia

Elgaria kingi—Madrean Alligator Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Crotaphytus collaris—Eastern Collared Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Gambelia wislizenii—Long-nosed Leopard Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Cophosaurus texanus—Greater Earless Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Holbrookia maculata—Lesser Earless Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Phrynosoma cornutum—Texas Horned Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Phrynosoma hernandesi—Mountain Short-horned Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Phrynosoma modestum—Round-tailed Horned Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Sceloporus clarkii—Clark's Spiny Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Sceloporus cowlesi—Southern Plateau Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Sceloporus jarrovii—Yarrow's Spiny Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Sceloporus magister—Desert Spiny Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Urosaurus ornatus—Tree Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Uta stansburiana—Side-blotched Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Plestiodon obsoletus—Great Plains Skink (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Aspidoscelis sp. (small)—Whiptail Lizards (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Aspidoscelis tigris—Western Whiptail Lizard (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Arizona elegans—Glossy Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Gyalopion cana—Chihuahua Hook-nosed Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Lampropeltis getula—Common Kingsnake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Lampropeltis pyromelana—Sonoran Mountain Kingsnake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Masticophis sp.—Coachwhip Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Pituophis catenifer—Gopher Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Rhinocheilus lecontei—Long-nosed Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Salvadora sp.—Patch-nosed Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Sonora semiannulata—Ground Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Tantilla sp.—Black-headed Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Trimorphodon vilkinsonii —Chihuahuan Lyre Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Crotalus spp. (medium and small spp.)—Rattlesnakes (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Diadophis punctatus—Ring-necked Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Hypsiglena "torquata"—Night Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Rena sp.—Blind Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)
Thamnophis cyrtopsis—Black-necked Garter Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977: cf.)
Heterodon nasicus—Western Hog-nosed Snake (Van Devender and Worthington 1977)

Aves

Anabernicula gracilenta—Graceful Pygmy Goose (Howard 1964)
Anas acuta—Northern Pintail (Howard 1962: cf.)
Anas crecca carolinensis—Green-winged Teal (Howard 1962: cf.)
Aythya americana—Redhead (Howard 1962: cf.)
Aythya affinis/collaris—Lesser Scaup or Ring-necked Duck (Howard 1962: cf.)
Centrocercus urophasianus—Greater Sage-Grouse (Howard 1962)
Meleagris crassipes—Big-footed Turkey (Emslie 1980; Rea 1980; Bochenski and Campbell 2006)
Oreortyx picta—Mountain Quail (Howard 1962: cf.)
Aquila chrysaetos—Golden Eagle (Howard 1962)
Buteo jamaicensis—Red-tailed Hawk (Howard 1962: cf.)
Spizaetus willetti—Willett's Hawk-eagle (Howard 1962).
Coragyps occidentalis—Western Vulture (Howard 1962)
Gymnogyps californianus amplus—California Condor (Howard 1962)
Falco mexicanus—Prairie Falcon (Howard 1962)
Numenius americanus—Long-billed Curlew (Howard 1962)
Zenaida macroura—Mourning Dove (UTEP)
Tyto alba—Barn Owl (Howard 1962)
Bubo virginianus—Great Horned Owl (Howard 1962)
Asio otus—Long-eared Owl (Howard 1962)
Corvus corax—Common Raven (Howard 1962)

Mammalia

Mammuthus sp.—Mammoth (Harris 1993c)
Cynomys gunnisoni—Gunnison's Prairie Dog (Harris 1993c)
Cynomys ludovicianus—Black-tailed Prairie Dog (Goodwin 1995: ?)
Ictidomys/Xerospermophilus—Thirteen-lined or Spotted Ground Squirrel (UTEP)
Dipodomys merriami—Merriam's Kangaroo Rat (Harris 1993c)
Dipodomys ordii—Ord's Kangaroo Rat (Harris 1993c)
Dipodomys spectabilis—Banner-tailed kangaroo Rat (Harris 1993c)
Chaetodipus baileyi—Bailey's Pocket Mice (Harris 1993c: cf.)
Perognathus flavus—Silky Pocket Mouse (Harris 1993c)
Thomomys bottae—Botta's Pocket Gopher (Harris 1993c)
Lemmiscus curtatus—Sagebrush Vole (Harris 1993c)
Microtus mogollonensis—Mogollon Vole (Smartt 1977)
Microtus montanus—Montane Vole (Smartt 1977)
Microtus pennsylvanicus—Meadow Vole (Harris 1993c)
Neotoma albigula—White-throated Woodrat (Harris 1993c)
Neotoma cinerea—Bushy-tailed Woodrat (Harris 1993c)
Neotoma mexicana—Mexican Woodrat (Harris 1993c)
Onychomys torridus-type—Torridus-type Grasshopper Mouse (Harris 1993c)
Reithrodontomys sp.—Harvest Mouse (Smartt 1977)
Sigmodon sp.—Cotton Rat (Harris 1993c)
Lepus townsendii—White-tailed Jackrabbit (Harris 1993c)
Sylvilagus audubonii—Desert Cottontail (Harris 1993c)
Sylvilagus nuttallii—Mountain Cottontail (Harris 1993c)
Cryptotis parva—Least Shrew (Harris et al. 1973)
Notiosorex dalquesti—Dalquest's Shrew (Carraway 2010)
Notiosorex harrisi—Harris' Shrew (Carraway 2010)
Antrozous pallidus—Pallid Bat (Harris 1993c)
Eptesicus fuscus—Big Brown Bat (Harris 1993c)
Puma concolor—Mountain Lion (Harris 1993c)
Urocyon cinereoargenteus—Gray Fox (Harris 1993c)
Vulpes sp.—Red Foxes (Harris 1993c)
Ursus americanus—Black Bear (Smartt 1977)
Spilogale sp.—Spotted Skunk (Harris 1993c)
Equus conversidens—Mexican Horse (Harris 1993c: cf.)
Camelops sp.—American Camel (Harris 1993c: ?)
Navahoceros sp.—Mountain Deer (Harris 1993c: ?)
Bison sp.—Bison (Harris 1993c: cf.)

Rejected.

Microtus ochrogaster—Prairie Vole (Smartt 1977).

Appears to have been an aberrant M. mogollonensis—see taxon account.

Literature. Bochenski and Campbell 2006; Carraway 2010; Emslie 1980; Emslie 1987; Goodwin 1995; Harris 1977b, 1985a, 1993c; Harris et al. 1973; Howard 1962, 1964, 1968; Rea 1980; Smartt 1977; Van Devender and Wiseman 1977; Van Devender and Worthington 1977.

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Last Update: 24 Jan 2013