Colorado teens find rare mastodon fossils
October 5, 2009
Teenagers find rare mastodon fossils in creekIVAN MORENO,Associated Press WriterDENVER – What began for two 13-year-old friends as a day of throwing rocks near a creek turned into a rewarding expedition that unearthed a glimpse of one of Colorado’s oldest dwellers – a mastodon that could be as old as 150,000 years.The discovery this summer by Jake Carstensen and Tyler Kellett marks the third time in Colorado that traces of the mastodon have been found. The previous discoveries were a tooth fragment found northeast of Pueblo in 1875 and a full molar found sometime before 1924 in Golden.But museum officials say this discovery of a mastodon mandible and tusk is the best example yet of the prehistoric animal in Colorado – and it’s a classic example what you can find in your backyard if you have a curious eye.”To me, that is the quintessential story of the natural history museum,” Kirk Johnson, chief curator of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, said Sunday, referring to the teenagers’ discovery. Johnson said “the good stuff is still out there – and you can find it.”It was a day after heavy rain on June 1 when Carstensen and Kellett went to the creek near their suburban homes just outside of Littleton, about 25 miles southwest of Denver. “We went down there just to mess around,” Carstensen said. In creek, they spotted what they thought was a rock covered in dirt. The boys soon realized the rock was the jaw of a large animal because it had a big tooth.The pair brought their discovery to Kellett’s father, a wildlife biologist.”At first I asked him what type of animal lived around here, and he said probably a cow or an elk but I knew it was lot bigger than that,” Kellett said, thinking the mandible belonged to a mammoth.So the boys turned their attention to the Internet, where they realized that the mandible actually belonged to the American mastodon, a relative of the elephant that went extinct about 13,000 years ago.Dr. Steve Holen, curator of archaeology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, agreed with the boy’s conclusion and returned with them to the site of their discovery. There, submerged in water in a stream bank, they found a five-foot segment of the animal’s tusk.The Caryl Ranch Master Association, which owns the land where the fossils were discovered, donated the findings to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.Johnson said it was a combination of intelligence and curiosity on the boys’ part the made the discovery possible.”The key thing about this is, we really rely on sharp-eyed individuals,” he said. “If these guys hadn’t found it, it probably would’ve just been washed away.”Johnson said it’s common to discover mammoth fossils in Colorado, but finding the remains of mastodons is rare because the elephant-sized creatures primarily lived in forests, so they’re more often found in states like Kentucky and Illinois.The boys’ discoveries help illustrate and remind people of the large animals, known as megafauna, that used to live in Colorado during the Ice Age. Other animals include camels, saber-tooth cats, lions, giant ground sloths and the giant short-faced bear.”If you put all of these animals together, Colorado starts to look more like Africa than Colorado,” Johnson said.