As scientists dig back in time, the clock ticks

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenNovember 9, 2010
With snow dropping at Ziegler Reservoir, paleontologists are racing the clock as they continue to catalog more creatures that roamed the Brush Creek Valley before the end of the last Ice Age.
A tusk at the site on Tuesday.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

At last count, fossils from five American mastodons, two Columbian mammoths, two huge bison, one Jefferson's ground sloth, one Odocoileus deer, a small reptile and a small mouse-like mammal. Officials at the Denver Museum of Science & Nature also say they have found prehistoric spruce and fir trees, snails, insects, plants and evidence of ancient beavers found from distinctly chewed wood.

Crews uncovered the second Columbian mammoth Monday. The animal was found in the top of a peat layer not far from the first mammoth discovered at the site on Oct. 14. After several hours of excavation, dig crews were able to identify the mammoth’s jaw, teeth, and tusks at the front of its skull.

A number of tusks are also getting pulled out of the ground. A small tusk fragment near the site of the second Columbian mammoth may be evidence of a third mammoth, according to museum officials. On Tuesday, the excavation team focused on a seven-foot mastodon tusk that officials called “beautiful.” Workers will place the tusk in a plaster jacket to protect it and prevent it from drying too quickly.

A group nicknamed the “Blade Runners” are pacing alongside three bulldozers as they remove layers of sediment, watching for fossils that are churned up by the machine's blade. When they spot a bone, the Blade Runners try to signal the drivers before the fossils get crushed under the bulldozer’s treads.

Taking an archaeological approach using a grid to sift through the sediments, the excavation crew is uncovering the skeleton of the juvenile Columbian mammoth that triggered the site dig on Oct. 14.

Museum volunteer Yanmin Huang carefully removes peat from around the bones of the discovery mammoth at Ziegler Reservoir above Snowmass.
Rick Wicker

“Now that much of the mammoth has been exposed, scientists are getting a better perspective about the bones in the ground and they are finding an unusual pattern. Crews have unearthed the mammoth’s pelvis and have found that a whole section of the mammoth’s neck is lying in the middle of the pelvis,” a daily press briefing from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science reported. “Dig crews have also found ankle bones, ribs, one in-place tusk and a portion of the skull.” Dr. Dan Fisher, a mastodon expert visiting here from the University of Michigan, analyzed the specimen under the tent on site and determined the Columbian mammoth was likely a young female.

While paleontologists work on unearthing bones, paleoecologists from the U.S. Geological Survey are helping the museum gain a better understanding of the stratigraphy of the sediments. They are expected to explain how the ancient lake filled with sediment and how long that process might have taken.

But with a few inches of fresh snow at the dig site already today, and more in the forecast, the men and women in the field are racing against winter.

“We will work as long as we can,” said museum paleontologist Dr. Ian Miller. “We will stay out there until the road to the dig site is no longer travelable.”

A team of Denver Museum of Nature & Science staff and volunteers work on the excavation of the first mammoth found at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village. On this mammoth, the museum is taking an archaeological approach to the dig, using a grid to guide the removal of sediment surrounding the bones.
Rick Wicker/Denver Museum of Nature & Science

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