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The Snowmastodon Dig

By Edited Jun 10, 2015 1 0

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Originally the Snowmass Excavation site was considered a mammoth site, now it is a mastodon site! Actually, over 3,000 bones have been dug up proving a diverse assemblage of an ecosystem without man. Mastodons (Snowmastodons), make up 80 - 85% of the fossil dig. Snowmass may be getting a new title- “Mastodon Capital of the World.”

There is a large group of scientists working on the data at and off the site. The Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) took over the discovery/dig after a local bulldozer operator hit gold - ice age gold, while moving dirt at the Ziegler reservoir. The lake is located at around 9,000 feet, and there are few known archaeological finds of these prehistoric critters at this altitude. The lake is gone now and the dig officially ends July 1st even though roughly 300 bones per day have been removed from the reservoir bottom. The scientists are purposely leaving bones there for the future. Really, no matter how careful fossils are removed, who knows if they are ruining future finds? There may be a better way for future scientists to remove and preserve what nature has already done. Technology advances are always on the way. Evidently there will be a “strike” crew in Denver at the DMNS in case something more awesome shows up after they have left Snowmass. A dam is being built near the site, so there will be more earth moving going on - thus the strike crew alert.


DMNS educators were in Snowmass this past week-end, sharing all that has happened on this current dig. There was an interactive and highly enjoyable learning experience for all billed as the “Snowmass Ice Age Spectacular.” There was a table showing bones or casts from bones of predators that lived at the same time, but not here. So far the only finds from the Zieglar reservoir site have all been herbivores. It is actually considered as an ancient elephant water hole. A large area had a giant sandbox with dirt in it so people could get hands on and dig like a scientist. The rules were:
  1. Use a brush.
  2. Be careful.
  3. Take your time.
  4. Keep dirt in dig site.

Kids with hard hats on were having a great time getting the feel of it. Then there was a table with laptop/camera equipment where one could get a photo of their face with mammoth tusks. This was to give one an idea how he/she would look as a Columbian mammoth! The area was titled
“Extreme Makeover.” Then one could follow a sloth trail to find out which sloth he is. Also, a very large replica of a mastadon recreation like a giant puppet was lurking around. It was a great time on the way to the room with the most recent bones displayed. That was an incredible display - see some of my photos here.

adult mastodon femur
mastodon ulna
juvenile mastodon femur

Try to imagine a prehistoric scene with these giant creatures moving about. They converge at the lake to replenish themselves, maybe have a social get together, check in with each other, whatever. Then there is an earthquake and they are dead in the water. That is just a scenario of what could have happened, because the scientists don’t know the death process at this time. They do know that the lake on a ridgetop had no streams feeding into it so there wasn’t a lot of salt. Rainfall was the fresh water source, and that is where the many remains have been found sealed in the reservoir. They can tell that the site and remains are from 50 - 155 thousand years ago. The sediment has revealed rocks that have been cracked and have perfectly preserved leaves with insects on them! They have found lots of preserved beetles, ice age horse bones, prehistoric deer bones, Jefferson ground sloth bones, and surely more that I have missed. The discovery has created quite a bit of interest from scientists with different specialties (like ancient DNA, and geology) from the U.S.A., Canada, Spain, and England who visited the site before the shutdown on July 1st. The scientific analysis to be performed at DMNS has an “ice age brain trust” with 27 scientists working for as long s it takes (months- years), according to the head honcho, Dr. Kirk Johnson.

I wondered about the funding and all the 60 volunteers that I saw on the satellite video conference live from the site. There was probably 100 people interacting/viewing from the Snowmass Silvertree conference center where the ice age spectacular was held. It was so exciting to have the scientist on duty standing there at the site with his hard hat on, lecturing and answering questions from the audience. Impressive to say the least. I took notes, and that is where some of my info for this article is from. The funding is totally from private donations, it is close to the desired goal of one million dollars. I thought about that and later questioned  an educator about all the volunteers, surely the donations were paying for them to stay in Snowmass (not an inexpensive resort) while they help with the dig? She informed me that the volunteers are here on their own dollar. One must realize that this is a big opportunity, a once in a lifetime experience for many of them. Besides that, they have a Paleontology Certification program for volunteers, that many of those at the site have. The volunteer selection is very selective, it seems a volunteer must put in some time and take some classes to be considered. This makes sense to have some training before being allowed on a site that is so highly valued since it is so unique.

So, the excavation is only on 2 of the 12 acre site, and the rest will remain an unexplained mysterious place. The future knowledge and data analysis of mammoths and mastodons remains to be broadcast. Oh, speaking of that, National Geographic and PBS will have upcoming television specials on this magnificent ancient discovery.


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