State honors scientific significance of Snowmass site

By Troy Hooper
Real AspenFebruary 24, 2011
Snowmass Village isn't just a mecca for skiing. It's an epicenter for science too.

That newfound distinction was on display Thursday at the state Capitol, where both the House and Senate recognized Snowmass Village as the home of one of Colorado's most meaningful paleontological finds.
Mammoth bones unearthed in Snowmass.
Troy Hooper

Sen. Gail Schwartz (D-Snowmass Village) and Rep. Laura Bradford (R-Collbran) carried resolutions recognizing the phenomenal achievements of the teams involved in the discovery, excavation, preservation, study and promotion of Ice Age fossils uncovered at Ziegler Reservoir last fall.

“This is truly an extraordinary discovery for the state of Colorado. I am so pleased to be able to bring forward this resolution to acknowledge the outstanding teamwork in managing the discovery site and ongoing preservation and study of this important find,” Sen. Schwartz said.

The irony of the discovery is that bones so old were discovered in a town so young. Radiocarbon tests determined the fossils are at least 45,000 years old. Snowmass Village wasn't incorporated until 1977.

The town's pertinent paleontological roots were discovered by chance. A bulldozer driver unearthed the bones of a Columbian juvenile mammoth while working on the expansion of Ziegler Reservoir in October. Paleontologists were quickly ushered in and by the end of the autumn excavation, crews from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science had recovered roughly 600 bones and bone pieces from the reservoir site, including 15 tusks, two tusk tips, and 14 bags full of tusk fragments from mammoths and mastodons, plus hundreds of pounds of plant matter.

The haul thus far has amounted to fossils from eight to 10 American mastodons, four Columbian mammoths, two Ice Age deer, four Ice Age bison, the first Jefferson's ground sloth ever found in Colorado, one tiger salamander, distinctly chewed wood that provides evidence of Ice Age beavers, insects that include iridescent beetles, snails and microscopic crustaceans called ostracods, along with ancient woods, seeds, cones, and leaves of white spruce, sub-alpine fir, sedges, seeds and other plants.

And all of that was found in just two weeks of excavation.

When winter subsides and after the snow melts at the 8,874-foot-high site, the scientists will return.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science this week reached agreements with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District and the Colorado Historical Preservation Office that will allow crews to further excavate the exceptionally preserved fossil sites at Ziegler Reservoir from May 15 to July 1.

“We are very pleased that our collaboration with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District and the Town of Snowmass Village will continue for another season,” Denver Museum of Nature & Science President and CEO George Sparks said in a prepared statement Wednesday. “The discoveries made last fall at Ziegler Reservoir are among the most significant in Colorado history, and having additional time to excavate this spring will further enhance our scientific understanding of this amazing find.”
An illustration of North American mastodons.

The agreement will allow museum crews to excavate the same area of Ziegler Reservoir where most of the fossil discoveries were made last fall and allow the sanitation district to complete its dam construction on schedule without damaging or burying any fossils, Sparks said.

As many as 40 people will work at the dig site at a time, including a small number of formal and informal educators from the Roaring Fork Valley who will be selected and trained as volunteers to work side by side with renowned scientists and other museum staff doing the actual excavation. 

The museum also will be permitted to leave a small excavation crew at the site after July 1 to recover additional fossils that might be exposed by large machinery as construction continues at the reservoir.

A team of 34 scientific experts from 15 institutions in the United States, Canada and England has been assembled to study the discoveries. Some members of the science team will be joining the excavation team at Ziegler Reservoir for a portion of the upcoming dig.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we will make sure that the fossils are properly recovered and that we accomplish the science that is needed to understand this amazing discovery,” said Kirk Johnson, the museum’s excavation leader and vice president of its research and collections division.

Experts say the Snowmass Village site is special for several reasons including:

· The high-altitude setting of this fossil site is consistently underrepresented in the Ice Age fossil record.

· The site contains several fossil-bearing horizons that allow for the reconstruction of a series of Ice Age ecosystems and potentially a better understanding of Ice Age climate change in the Colorado Rockies.

· It is exceedingly rare to discover such a diversity of plants and animals from an Ice Age ecosystem in one place. Normally, scientists must use information from many different sites to piece together a picture of what plant and animal life was like in the Ice Age. At this site, they can assemble a very complete picture from one location.

· The preservation of the fossils discovered at Ziegler Reservoir is exceptional. Plant matter found at the site is still green, and at least one of the tusks recovered from the site is still white after tens of thousands of years. Scientists think there is a good chance of recovering well-preserved ancient DNA from some of the fossils.

· The age of the site is of particular interest to scientists. Initial radiocarbon dating indicates the site is more than 45,000 years old, and geologists estimate it could be as old as 130,000 to 150,000 years. Discovery of such an old Ice Age site is rare and will provide scientists with an opportunity to learn about an earlier part of Ice Age history.

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