Saturday, October 23, 2010

The rare mountain mammoth

Last Thursday, Jesse Steele, a heavy equipment operator from Grand Junction, CO, was working on a job to enlarge the little reservoir that provides Snowmass Village with its water. As he pushed some earth into a pile where it would be loaded into dump trucks for removal, he noticed what appeared to be a rib rolling over the blade of his bulldozer. As a matter of fact, bulldozers rarely doze actual bulls, but that was Steele's first thought. Perhaps he had uncovered the bones of a cow or a buffalo. He and some other workers were curious enough that they poked around in the dozed up dirt. What they found were bones that were too big and strange for any local fauna they were familiar with. They passed word up the food chain and by Saturday they knew that they had a mammoth. The water utility threw a fence around the site to keep the bones safe for an orderly excavation.

Mammoth bones are found all the time. Hundreds show up in Siberia each year and a dozen or so in the US. This one is special for two reasons. First it might be almost intact. Most dead animals are picked apart by scavengers, the bones carried away or scattered. Those that stay on the surface decompose. Most of the buried ones eventually erode out and fall apart. Usually when we find the remains of a prehistoric animal, we find only a few bones or fragments of bones. Steele's bulldozer uncovered one side of a young mammoth and the experts from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science believe the rest of the skeleton is still in the ground there. They are still in the first stages of examining the site. It will probably be weeks before they know for sure.

The second interesting thing about this mammoth it that it was found at 8000 feet in the mountains. Elephants can handle some pretty rough terrain, but they aren't mountain goats. A mammoth would have gone where the food is. Mountain meadows would have had some pretty tasty grazing in the summer. But how much food could there have been at that altitude during the end of the ice age?

As a side note, the article about the find, by Brent Gardner-Smith, a staff writer for the Aspen Daily News, is an example of excellent science journalism. First off, he avoids sensationalizing the find. He never once claims this find will solve the mystery of mammoth extinction or that it will be cloned. He works in some nice educational background information, mentioning the two species of mammoth, woolly and Columbian. He supplies important tips for future discoverers of fossils (leave them in the ground and don't let them dry out). Writers for the major news outlets could learn a lot from this small town writer.

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