Presentation to focus on ice age mastodon dig project
by Steve Kadel
Staff Writer
Jan 10, 2013 | 2064 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
02 Snowmastodon
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Staff, volunteers, and scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science search for bones and other items at an ice age dig site near Snowmass Village, Colo. Working, on average, 10-hour days seven days a week during the spring and summer of 2011, crew members hand shoveled 6,000 tons of dirt over 69 total days of fossil excavation. More than 5,000 bones were excavated during the Snowmastodon Project, officials say. A Moab researcher who worked on the project will present a slideshow and discussion at the Grand County Public Library on Monday, Jan. 14. Photos courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

A Moab woman who has been working on one of the nation’s most significant archaeological digs will present a slide show and discussion of the project Monday, Jan. 14, at the Grand County Public Library. The free event begins at 6:30 p.m.

Paleo-ecologist Saxon Sharpe is one of three-dozen scientists trying to piece together the story of ice age remains dating from 40,000 years to 150,000 years ago.

Sharpe said she believes the Snowmastodon Project near Snowmass Village, Colo., could become “one of the premier paleontology sites in North America.”

So far, scientists have excavated more than 5,000 bones along with remains of giant trees, some of which were more than 350 years old when they died, Sharpe said. However, conclusions from the project still aren’t known and the results are scheduled to be published in the journal Quaternary Research in 2014.

The project is timely because it spans a warm interglacial period similar to the one mankind is experiencing now, Sharpe said.

“We can compare what was going on back then and what is going on today,” she said. “This site can help everybody learn how natural climate change and human-induced climate change work.”

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science organized the dig and scientists were recruited from around the world. Sharpe was brought on as a research associate, although she remains a research professor emerita with the Desert Research Institute of Reno, Nev., part of the University of Nevada higher education system.

She said each of the 37 scientists has his or her own specialty and all are pursuing different types of evidence.

“What we need to figure out is how the story comes together,” Sharpe said. “We have big bones, salamanders, mollusks, invertebrates, insects, conifer needles and bark. It’s an amazing trove of treasures.”

The site is so well preserved that researchers even found green plant material, Sharpe added.

“There are logs that look like they had been pushed up on a lake shore last year,” she said. “We are thinking there was a lot of glacial material blown into this lake basin [to preserve items]. We are still working on the final story.”

Crews worked 10-hour days, seven days a week, according to museum spokeswoman Charlotte Hurley. They logged 69 days of fossil excavation in 2010 and 2011, moving 8,000 tons of dirt last year, she said.

Early investigations revealed 13 to 20 mastodons at the site. Before the site was discovered, only three other mastodons had been discovered in Colorado.

“We are finding male and female mastodons of all ages,” Kirk Johnson, the leader of the museum’s excavation team, wrote on the museum website. “We have so many speculative questions, like why were so many mastodons in this one location, and what can scientists learn from this discovery? At this point, we only have speculative answers.”

Sharpe said her presentation will be geared to the average person rather than a scientific audience.

“It will be a general lecture,” she said. “I will be talking about the site and what we have found there. It is significant because it is a high-elevation site and there aren’t many of those around. The diversity of material and the preservation are absolutely phenomenal.”

The site was discovered in October 2010 when a bulldozer operator working near a ski area uncovered the tusk of a young female mammoth, according to the museum’s website. It became the museum’s largest-ever fossil excavation, yielding mammoths, ground sloths, camels, deer, horses and giant bison in addition to mastodons.

A book titled “Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies” has been published and the Grand County Public Library has a copy, Sharpe said. The book is also available online.

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