wandermelon’s Terena Eisner visits one of the most significant fossil finds in American history, including the discovery of over 4,500 bones from woolly mammoths, mastodons, and 20 other Ice Age animals located in a Snowmass reservoir.
Snowmass, Colorado’s legendary ski runs usually make the headlines. But this picturesque ski town has been in the news lately due to the recent discovery here of one of the world’s most significant paleontological finds. An operator of a bulldozer working on a reservoir project first noticed rib bones of what turned out to be a woolly mammoth last October. That was the beginning of a massive effort to unearth Ice Age fossils near Snowmass Village.
I was fortunate enough to be allowed onto the site where some 37 scientists from 18 universities have been working along with large crews to uncover the remains. The most significant part of the discovery is that actual bones are being unearthed, rather than just fossilized bones. So far more than 4,500 bones from at least 20 different animals have been found, according to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.
Dr. Kirk Johnson, leader of the excavation team and vice president of the Research and Collections Division at the museum, led our group through the immense excavation site and explained that close to 3,000 of the bones have come from mastodons, making this the largest discovery in the state’s history. He showed us enormous woolly mammoth teeth and mastodon ribs – all of the remains have been unusually preserved because there was a layer of clay covering the reservoir that encapsulated the remains. Johnson estimates the age of the fossils to be between 100,000 to 150,000 years old, and he believes that there must have been some kind of death trap surrounding the ancient lake that caused such a large number of animals to die in one place.
Large crews are busy finishing up the fossil dig, which ends today so that the construction of the dam can continue. Johnson predicts the species list will grow to 30 or 40 once scientists have had time to examine the specimens back at the museum. Visitors curious to see the remains will be able to view some of them at a small museum at the Snowmass Mall, the Ice Age Discovery Center, which will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. until August 18. Afterwards, a more extensive collection is planned to be on view at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.