Man hits 'pay dirt' when he uncovers mastodon skull

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenNovember 3, 2010
SNOWMASS VILLAGE — A museum volunteer digging for bones at one of at least 10 fossil sites at Ziegler Reservoir on Wednesday uncovered the skull of what paleontologists believe is a mastodon.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science volunteer Don Brandborg uses a trowel to carefully excavate a skull found Wednesday at the fossil dig site at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village. Museum scientists say the skull is most likely that of a mastodon.
Rick Wicker/Denver Museum of Nature & Science

It is the latest evidence that there could be more mastodons above Snowmass Village than mammoths — a theory held by scientists who now believe there are at least three mastodons and one mammoth at the site. Crews continue to find more mammoth and mastodon bones, so those numbers may be revised.

“This is the first time we've found teeth in a skull and the first time we've found a skull here,” said Dr. Steve Holen, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science archaeology curator and mammoth expert.

Because two mastodon tusks were found nearby, Holen and his colleagues believe the skull is also from a mastodon. Teeth provide the telltale signs when differentiating mastodons from mammoths. Luckily the skull is buried in the ground in a way that should make it easy for scientists to reach its upper jaw.

"I hit pay dirt. This is just wonderful,” said Don Brandborg, a Denver Museum of Nature & Science volunteer since 1996 who unearthed the skull in the first hour of his first day at the Snowmass dig site.

Gould Construction bulldozer operator Jesse Steele made the first mammoth discovery here Oct. 14 when he pushed up some dirt and spotted the spine of a juvenile Columbian mammoth poking out of the ground. Ever since, scientists here have been learning new things almost every day. They say even a third ancient species could be on site.

“We've found several tusks,” Holen said. “We are excavating another tusk and it just keeps getting longer and longer. Now it is over six feet long and I haven't gone back to check in the last half hour. It might be another foot long.”

Mammoths and mastodons disappeared from North America at the end of the last Ice Age.

Snowmass is the first site in Colorado to contain both mammoth and mastodon fossils. To boot, it appears there may be entire skeletons of both types of beasts that died off at the end of the last Ice Age. Mammoths and mastodons both resemble long-tusked elephants but mammoths were reportedly a little taller and grazed on grasses while mastodons were a little stockier and ate trees and shrubs. In addition to the different shapes of their teeth, mastodon tusks are straighter than mammoth tusks.

Using hand tools and a small backhoe, they opened up four of the sites that have produced fossil bone over the last week, Denver Museum of Nature & Science scientists, educators and volunteers opened up four of the 10 dig sites Tuesday. The first site is where a tent covers the juvenile Columbian mammoth. The second site is of a full-sized mastodon discovered Oct. 27. The third site is where a pair of tusks were found at the edge of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District's reservoir expansion. The fourth site is bone likely from either a mammoth or mastodon that was recently unearthed.

Mammoths and mastodons were hunted by people for their meat, hide, bones and sinew. As such, various archaeological sites have been found around the world where the animals were killed.

Scientists are hopeful Snowmass could be one of those sites.

They have grids set up at the dig sites where they screen the peat looking for any clues to ancient life.

“We haven't found any artifacts yet but we hope to in the near future,” Holen said.

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