Monday, October 24, 2011

The Mammoth Site

OK, this place was the prime attraction for me. Sure, Crazy Horse and Mt. Rushmore are majestic and make us all swell with national pride, but this place is super-interesting. And it was practically right next to where I was staying in Hot Springs. See, 27,000 years ago, there was a tiny seismic event that caused hot water to bubble up and form a pond. The local animals quite enjoyed that, it being an ice age and whatnot. Mammoths dropped by to eat the thick grass that grew around the pond and take a dip. Sometimes they couldn't get out. It was a bad way to go. They would starve to death while predators waited nearby. This pond was around for around 700 years. To date, they've found all kinds of bones (including predators), but most notably, they've unearthed 59 mammoth skeletons. So far, they've identified three woolly and 56 Columbian mammoths. Yes, there was more than one kind of mammoth. I didn't know that either before I visited the site. Apparently, the Columbia mammoth looked a lot like this:

And this is what one looks like without any skin or guts:

They were pretty massive; something like two feet taller than an African elephant, which is about as large as a woolly mammoth. Of course, what they call the "ancestral mammoth" was bigger than the Columbian mammoth by another three feet. So that was one very large creature. Anyhow, the place kind of looks like a bankrupt church from the outside:

But on the inside, it's an active dig. They give you a tour and it's really quite unforgettable, because, y'know, there are tons of bones everywhere. Some are immaculately preserved; others are just a jumble. This is what it looks like:

The thing about mammoths is that they had really weird teeth. Here's the story and an example:

So they've found 59 skeletons. Funny thing, they're all male. It seems that mammoth society was exactly like elephants are now: the females travel together and the males go off on their own. So they would just wander into the warm pond and never come out. Poor guys. Well, it was 27,000 years ago.

They've drilled down to see how much farther the site goes. It's pretty staggering. So far, they've excavated 22 feet down. The drilling indicates that there are bones for another 45 feet. Who knows, they might even find a mastodon. They haven't yet. Anyhow, there's an exhibit about mammoths off to the side. This is what it looks like:

They were also really big on miniature mammoths. There's this phenomenon that happens when animals get stranded on islands. They get smaller. It happened to dinosaurs. It happened to horses on the Shetland Islands. And it happened to mammoths. This fellow's bones were found on Catalina Island in California:

When they originally found him, they thought they'd unearthed a one-year-old baby, but his bones and teeth revealed that he was quite old. So presto, mini-mammoth! They've also found similarly-sized guys on Wrangel Island in Russia and on some other island that I can't remember.

This place was simply stunning. I highly recommend it. You know, if you're feeling paleontological, you can volunteer to help excavate. I'm seriously thinking about it.

OK, so that was just the beginning of the day. There is more to follow tomorrow.

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