Monday, January 24, 2011

Mystery Behind Ice Age Fossils In ‘Once In A Life-Time Discovery’ Unearthed

An academic from Royal Holloway, University of London will join a team of international scientists to analyse hundreds of of mammoths, mastodons and other Ice Age creatures recently unearthered in Colorado.

Initial mammoth find picture

Credit: Paul Carrara

Professor Scott Elias from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway will join other researchers to attempt to piece together how the animals came to be buried in one place. The remains of six different species, including five American mastodons, three Ice Age bison, a mule deer, two Columbian mammoths, a tiger salamander and a Jefferson’s ground sloth, were stumbled upon by contractors who were digging the area as part of a reservoir expansion project in the Village of Snowmass, in Western Colorado.

This site is among the few places in America and the only one in Colorado where the fossils of mammoths and mastodons have been found in one location. Mammoths and mastodons are both elephant-like creatures with long tusks. Both species faded into extinction in North America more than 12,800 years ago.

Professor Elias said: “Sites like this are extremely rare. To find hundreds of bones like this, spanning possibly 100,000 years of time, is a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

Since the initial discovery in November, work has had to stop due to the snow but will resume again in the next few months when Professor Elias will join a team of over 60 scientists to test samples and study the fossils more closely.

Professor Elias has already begun work at Royal Holloway after he was sent samples of peat from the site which he has managed to test and has extracted a number of beetles and other insects.

He explains: “Each one of these fossils will tell us what the animals’ life was like. It will provide us with information about the environment and vegetation at the time and help us understand the water quality and air temperature.

“This site is so unique because it is at a high altitude and it has amassed such a wide array of animals, plants and insects from a vast time span which gives an indication of an entire ecosystem all in one place. It is quite a remarkable discovery.”

Scientists have also recovered seeds, pollen, mummified leaves, and fossilized snails that may provide clues to the water quality of the lake or bog they lived in thousands of years ago.

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has taken ownership of the bones and will put them in a climate-controlled environment to prevent them from crumbling or being damaged.

Contacts and sources:
Royal Holloway, University of London

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