October 19, 2012

The Mammoth Site – National Fossil Day

October 17 was National Fossil Day, and to celebrate I decided to visit The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

In addition to their normally outstanding facility, today The Mammoth Site had some extra events going on:

  • An Ice Age art contest
  • Prehistoric antique road show – you were allowed to bring rocks and fossils with you to be identified by Dr. Larry Agenbroad
  • Patrons could make a plaster cast of a mammoth’s tooth
  • Atlatl throwing
  • And an amazing lecture by Dr. Evgeny Mashenko on baby woolly mammoths.

The site itself is a marvel.  So far they have discovered 60 mammoth skeletons, 57 are Columbian Mammoths and three Woolly Mammoths.  They have also found fish, reptiles, small rodents, gray wolves, an ancient species of camel, Llama, pronghorn.. and my personal favorite, one giant short-face bear.

The giant short-faced bear, Arctodus simus, was a scary beast.  He lived about 11,000 years ago and stood 5’9″ on all four feet.  Standing on his back feet, Arctodus would have no trouble looking in your second story window.

Exhibit features a life-sized skeleton of the giant short-faced bear, Arctodus simus.
Image Credit: The Mammoth Site

The Mammoth Site is part of the Fossil Freeway, which runs from Southwest Nebraska through Northwest South Dakota.  Unlike most of the sites, and most museums I’ve ever been in, The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig.  During the summer months, even as tourists follow their guides around the walkways, scientists and volunteers will be in the sinkhole, uncovering more bones.

26,000 year old mammoth fossils are displayed in-situ at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD
Image Credit: The Mammoth Site

Dr. Evgeny Mashenko, from the Paleontological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow,  gave a lecture on the eight baby woolly mammoths which have been found around the world since 1948.  The lecture was fascinating.  Mashenko and his translator, Olga, gave in-depth information about each preserved baby mammoth, comparing it to the morphology of the modern elephant families.

Fascinating Factoids: Mammoth babies are smaller than modern elephants when they are born.  Mammoths are about 80kg and Elephants are about 100kg.  By the time the mammoth baby is one year old, they are the size of a full-grown African Elephant. Oh, and the Columbian Mammoth fully grown is SO tall that an Asian elephant can walk under his chin without brushing.

I have decided that every scientific lecture should be given in Russian. It makes what should be a slow, perhaps dry presentation into something foreign and exotic.  Olga’s translations added humor to the sexiness of the Russian accent.

The original site for the Mammoth Site dig was going to be a housing development.  The owner started bulldozing to level the land in 1974 and found the first mammoth tusk.  Luckily for the rest of us, he recognized what he had found.

Two different groups of volunteers help out with the digs each year; the Earthwatch.org group, and the Roads Scholars (yes, I spelled that right, totally different from the Rhodes Scholars). You can find information on The Mammoth Site’s website about how to contact them and maybe get in on a dig.

If you are ever driving through the Black Hills, I totally recommend a visit to The Mammoth Site.  It is well worth the time.

Featured Image Credit: Photos.com

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