Finding mastodons in ski country
Snowmass Village, Colorado, is home to one of the most significant archeological finds of ice age fossils in North America.
This story was originally reported by PRI's Living on Earth. For more, listen to the audio above.
The discovery of an American mastodon in the middle of Snowmass Village, Colorado, was a fluke. The town is known more as a winter resort town than as an archeological hotspot. But when Jessie Steele was doing construction on a local reservoir, he noticed something unusual. He told PRI's Living on Earth:
"There was two rib bones that come up in the dirt on the dozer to start with, and as soon as I shut down and got out, I noticed there was a considerable amount more. I'm an avid hunter also, and so I could tell right away they was ribs. I did not know what in the world they was off of," Steele said.
It turned out that the reservoir was also a lake that was formed an estimated 120,000 years ago. It sits on top of a ridge, a position that protected it from subsequent glaciers. Scientists have discovered nearly 600 bones so far, including Columbian mammoth, American mastodon, giant ground sloth, bison, and tiger salamander.
"It's so great to have this Pleistocene graveyard at nine thousand feet," Ian Miller, curator of paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, told Living on Earth. "It's really giving us some insight into what Colorado was like say 40, 50 thousand years ago."
From the day Steele found the ribs it was non-stop action at the site. More than 40 people dug at a time. The site also had 24-hour security to protect it from looters. And the discoveries aren't done yet. Kirk Johnson, the Chief Curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, told Living on Earth:
We're getting leaves that are still green. We're getting beautiful preservation of the bones. The wood that comes out of the ground looks like driftwood, we're finding chunks of beaver chewed sticks, and cones of spruce and fir, skeletons of little salamanders. So it's a real well-preserved fossil treasure trove.
Now local residents are trying to figure out what to do with the discoveries. Some think the town should change its name. "They've got to change the name of this town," Johnson says. "Snowmass is boring, Snowmastodon is accurate."
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