Ice Age horse added to list of Snowmass discoveries

By Real Aspen
Real AspenJune 15, 2011
SNOWMASS VILLAGE — The long list of Ice Age animals that once lived near Snowmass Village continues to grow with the addition of an Ice Age horse.

On Saturday crews from the Denver Museum of Nature & Science uncovered a horse ankle bone. Less than three weeks remain in the seven-week dig at Ziegler Reservoir and the excavation team has reached the bottom layer of the ice age lake, which contains new animal species.

The Ice Age horse bone is one of more than 2,300 fossils that have been uncovered this spring. The bone was found at the bottom of the sediment and is, thus, one of the oldest animals at the site. Horses were common in North America during the Ice Age and disappeared from North America about 12,000 years ago.
The bone from an Ice Age horse in Snowmass.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Over the last few days, the crew found a large number Jefferson Ground Sloth bones and claws. On Monday, they uncovered a complete skull of this unusual animal, which is the size of a grizzly bear. Measuring over a foot long, it is the first complete sloth skull discovered at the site. Local volunteer Chris Faison, a teacher at Aspen Community School, found the skull.

An army of scientists and volunteers, along with two excavators, two track hoes and additional machines, are grinding away at Ziegler Reservoir, where an Ice Age ecosystem was discovered last fall.

Last month, fossils from a prehistoric camel surfaced at the reservoir.

The landscape is changing daily as crews pull out tons of dirt and huge numbers of fossils, including 15 jacketed fossils of mastodon skulls and pelvises that each weigh 300 to 700 pounds and are the size of a kitchen stove and took a team of 10 people to clean, wrap, and process the fossils for conservation and research.

“These giant fossils, the skulls and pelvises each the size of a car door, are in one large bone bed among massive boulders,” said Kirk Johnson, the leader of the museum’s excavation team and vice president of the Research and Collections Division.  “We are just baffled as to why they are all in one place.  One possible scenario could be that they were from skeletons on the shoreline that were washed into the lakebed and settled to the bottom. It’s just speculation at this point, as we piece together the details of this incredible Ice Age scene.”
The excavation team takes a lunch break at Ziegler.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

An average mastodon pelvis weighs approximately 150 pounds, and that weight increases to 400 pounds once the fossil is surrounded by a plaster jacket.  An average mastodon skull weighs up to 600 pounds before it is jacketed. The team at the Ice Age dig site near Snowmass Village is relying on an excavator to hoist the heavy specimens off the ground, and then rents trucks to transport them down to the museum for preservation.

The crew in Snowmass is uncovering mastodons of all ages, including infants and juveniles.

“Based on our previous research, we know that we are finding male and female mastodons of all ages,” Johnson said. “Since beginning the dig last fall, we have uncovered 26 total mastodon tusks, which means we have evidence for at least 13 to 20 different mastodons on this site. We’ll know more as we study the growth rings on each tusk and identify pairs of tusks that belonged to individual mastodons.”
The museum's Bethany Williams catalogues fossils.
Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Prior to the discovery of this site, there had only been three other mastodon finds on record in Colorado, and none yielded mastodon skulls.

“We have so many speculative questions, like why were so many mastodons in this one location, and what can scientists learn from this discovery?” added Johnson.  “At this point, we only have speculative answers.  We’re busy collecting data and mapping the finds, so these details can help us develop solid answers.”

Scientists and educators from the museum will share the latest information about the Snowmastodon Project at several upcoming events, including this weekend’s Ice Age Spectacular in Snowmass Village on June 18 and 19, and presentations at Colorado Mountain College on June 15 and at the Aspen Institute on June 23.

Additionally, late last week, The National Geographic Society confirmed plans to feature the Snowmass Village fossil finds in National Geographic magazine and in a NOVA-National Geographic special on PBS — both to be released in the next year. Research for the Snowmastodon Project is supported in part by a $55,000 grant from the National Geographic Society. In addition, the National Science Foundation has committed $10,000 to the project.

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