Snowmass fossil site a 'once-in-a-lifetime' find

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenNovember 18, 2010
The newest tally of Ice Age animals found in Snowmass has pushed the number of mastodons to as many as ten.

“The discovery near Snowmass Village is one of those once-in-a-lifetime finds. Not only will it completely shape our understanding of life in the Rockies during the Ice Age, but it will become forever iconic for the kids of Colorado,” said Dr. Kirk Johnson, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's chief curator.

The fossil site was discovered Oct. 14 when construction workers excavating Ziegler Reservoir unearthed bones from a young female Columbian mammoth. Further digging revealed an Ice Age ecosystem of well-preserved specimens.

In just a coupe of weeks, scientists uncovered the following:

·         Eight to 10 American mastodons
·         Four Columbian mammoths
·         Two Ice Age deer
·         Four Ice Age bison
·         One Jefferson’s ground sloth (the first ever found in Colorado)
·         One tiger salamander
·         Distinctly chewed wood that provides evidence of Ice Age beavers
·         Insects including iridescent beetles
·         Snails and microscopic crustaceans called ostracods
·         Hundreds of pounds of wood, seeds, cones, white spruce leaves, sub-alpine fir leaves and sedges  

Dr. Steve Holen, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, inspects a mammoth bone with Dr. Daniel Fisher, a mastodon expert from the University of Michigan, a couple of weeks ago.
Rick Wicker

Among the 600 or so bones and bone pieces that have been found are 15 tusks, two tusk tips, and 14 bags full of mammoth and mastodon tusk fragments. The fossils are in premium condition with at lease one tusk still white after tens of thousands of years.

Scientists find it likely that ancient DNA can be extracted from some of the fossils.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science crew has returned to Denver where they will clean and preserve the fossils in a conservation lab. The bones are so saturated with water that drying them could take a year or longer. Drying them out is a delicate process. If dried too quickly, fossils can crumble and disintegrate.

From there, museum officials will assemble a research plan in consultation with a scientific advisory team that includes several leading experts from American universities and government agencies.

Initial radiocarbon dating indicates the dig site is more than 43,500 years old, and geologists estimate many of the bones have been there 130,000 years or more.

Dr. Daniel Fisher, a mastodon expert from the University of Michigan and a consultant to the Snowmass site, said its rare to find Ice Age fossils at 8,874 feet.

“There have been suggestions that high-altitude environments might have harbored different communities, or had a different story of change, but since fossils representing them are so rarely found, no one has known for sure. Now is our chance to see what they are like,” he said.

Experts say it is exceedingly uncommon to discover so many different plants and animals dating back to the Ice Age in a single location. There are only a couple other places on the continent where so many mastodons have been preserved. The Jefferson's ground sloth uncovered there is the first one found in Colorado.

Scientists say the site is one of the most significant discoveries made in the state.

They plan to return for several weeks in the spring to continue the excavation.


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