PHOTOS: Ichthyosaur Bones and Brews at Great Basin’s Taps and Tanks

Story and Photos by Ty O’Neil

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On Friday Great Basin Brewing Co. transformed its Taps and Tanks facility into a game room, restaurant, classroom, tasting house, and charity drive all together, just for one night. The event was as much a celebration of Nevada as it was a fundraiser for an Ichthyosaur expedition led by Dr. P. Martin Sander, professor of vertebrae paleontology at the Division of Paleontology, Steinmann Institute at the University of Bonn in Germany. The event was also the unveiling of Great Basin’s newest beer called Phalarodon.

Tom Young, owner and brewmaster of Great Basin Brewing Co., talked about the new brew, now available at their Sparks location. It starts with the brewery’s iconic Ichthyosaur India Pale Ale, or “Icky,” that is locked in bourbon barrels, then an experimental dry hops is added that contains, among other elements, strawberry and raspberry. The beer was well received those who tried it, with some remarking that they preferred Phalarodon over the “Icky.” While the new brew was the highlight of the evening, it wasn’t the only beer on tap; Wild Horse and Root Beer were also popular among patrons.

After the launch of Phalarodon, focus shifted to the Ichthyosaur expedition. Described as “raw science,” Young explained that the expedition was science that furthered our understanding of the world and the creatures that have inhabited it, rather than science in search of profit.

Attendees were packed into Taps and Tanks for Dr. Sander's talk.
Attendees were packed into Taps and Tanks for Dr. Sander’s talk. Image: Ty O’Neil

By the time Dr. Sander started his presentation the audience had grown beyond standing room only. People peered through bourbon barrels or sat under the projection screen just to catch the lecture. It should be noted that this was not a small area nor was it poorly laid out, it was simply filled to the brim with intrigued locals who eagerly shushed inattentive neighbors so everyone could hear.

Dr. Sander, donning a Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park t-shirt, started by explaining the modern history of fossils beginning in Great Britain in the early 1800s. He discussed how the name Ichthyosaur, meaning fish lizard, was a bit misleading as Ichthyosaurs gave birth to live young. This is known to be fact because some Ichthyosaurs have been fossilized with unborn fetuses.  Phalarodon measured in at 3 to 4 feet, likely eating a diet of squid based on their teeth.

In 1998 Dr. Sander discovered quite a different Ichthyosaur, with the skull alone measuring in at over 6 feet and teeth similar to that of a killer whale, meaning that it was a large flesh eater. Not only that but it is likely to be the first ever predator of this size. Even more recently another Ichthyosaur was discovered and temporarily named JIM 2. While equal in size, it has smaller teeth likely used for fish and squid. This means that while Nevada isn’t the only place to find the largest Ichthyosaur, it’s the only place to find two of the world’s largest Ichthyosaurs.

Dr. P. Martin Sander discusses how an "Icky" truck transported an Ichthyosaur to LA.
Dr. P. Martin Sander tells how an “Icky” truck transported an Ichthyosaur to LA. Image: Ty O’Neil.

It was at this point in the presentation that the relationship between Dr. Sander and Young became apparent. After using a helicopter to remove the fossils from their mountain hold Dr. Sander and his team were stuck, unable to find transport to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Young had a solution. He drove one of the brewery’s trucks, fittingly an Ichthyosaur-themed one, out into the Nevada desert and loading it up with Ichthyosaur bones. That wasn’t the end though. They drive the fossils all the way to LA, something Young jokingly explained wasn’t the easiest thing to explain to law enforcement.

Questions lobbed from the audience quickly established that they were paying attention. They asked about Ichthyosaur live births, fossil preservation, and other curiosities.

Dr. Sander concluded by thanking the BLM and expressing his appreciation to Young and Great Basin Brewing Co.

Doug Goodreau spoke with me about the work the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County does extracting the fossils from the surrounding stone. Goodreau has been with the museum for 17 years and explained that sponsorships like that from Great Basin Brewing Co. “are as rare as the fossils themselves.” He also mentioned his surprise by the turnout and how interested Reno locals were in their state’s history.

Dr. Sander also stated his pleasure in seeing so many interested people, noting that since he began expeditions in Nevada in the 1990s he has seen Nevadans placing more and more value on intellectual endeavors.

Pin the Tail on the Ichthyosaur
Pin the Tail on the Ichthyosaur, Image: Ty O’Neil

After all the questions and handshakes had come to an end the evening turned to more light-hearted activities: a dinosaur spelling bee and pin the tail on the full-size Ichthyosaur. Pin the tail, it’s safe to say, took the cake when it came to laughter. Four-person teams wore googly-eye blindfolds to comic effect as brewery employees spun them around and generally confused the blind competitors. Where normal pin the tail is a competition pitting player against player, this quickly became a competition of which team could decipher and follow the audience’s plethora of loud overlapping instructions. “Left, left, left! Middle! Down! No, too far down! End up!” the audience cheered. Every team ended up only inches from their goal; not an easy task with a 20-foot tail.

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Ty O'Neil
About Ty O'Neil 88 Articles
Ty O’Neil is a lifelong student of anthropology with two degrees in the arts. He is far more at home in the tear gas filled streets of war torn countries than he is relaxing at home. He has found a place at ThisisReno as a photojournalist. He hopes to someday be a conflict photojournalist covering wars and natural disasters abroad