Snowmass fossil site yields more discoveries

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – Perhaps the only thing a crew of scientists digging up prehistoric bones at a Snowmass Village reservoir can be sure of is that they don’t know what will turn up next.”Five species in three days. I am jazzed,” gushed Kirk Johnson, vice president of research and collections and chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, during a press conference Friday morning at the Base Village conference center. The tally includes at least one Columbian mammoth, evidence of several mastodons, the bones of three Ice Age bison, a small deer-like animal that has yet to be identified, and a humerus, or upper arm bone, of a giant ground sloth that stood up to 12 feet in height. The latter may be the rarest of the discoveries.Several museum officials, scientists and town officials offered an update on what is happening at Ziegler Reservoir to roughly 100 citizens and media representatives, though the accounting of what has been unearthed at the reservoir can change as quickly as another shovelful of peat can be overturned. Several specimens of the giant bones were on display Friday, as was the relatively small tooth of a mastodon that University of Michigan paleontologist Dr. Daniel Fisher, a mastodon expert, estimated came from a 3- to 5-year-old animal. Fisher was summoned when mastodons began turning up at the site. Headed to Snowmass Village on Friday were Dr. Russ Graham, an Ice Age mammal specialist from Pennsylvania State University, and Dr. Greg McDonald, a sloth fossil expert. They were expected to join the dig crew this weekend.With winter fast approaching, the team is trying to exhume as many of the reservoir’s treasures as possible, and preserve them.This week, a museum representative traveled the greater Roaring Fork Valley, showing some of the specimens to about 8,500 schoolchildren. Other bones have already been transported to the museum’s preservation lab.”Our primary issue right now is preserving the bones,” Johnson said. They will be kept cold and moist, and allowed to dry slowly – a process that will take about a year – to prevent them from disintegrating.The bones have not fossilized – turned to stone, in other words – but still contain protein and collagen, said Dr. Steve Holen, curator of archeology and the museum’s resident mammoth expert. Because they are more than 10,000 years old, however, they are considered fossils.Scientists estimate the bones at the reservoir are 12,000 to 15,000 years old, dating back to the end of the last Ice Age. Samples of peat from the site have already been sent to a lab to be radiocarbon dated; results may be available by late next week. Radiocarbon dating of the bones themselves, to determine their age, is also planned, and it may be possible to extract DNA samples from them, as well.In addition to the scientific work, the museum is working with town officials on what George Sparks, museum president and CEO, called the economic impact of the find.”This is only step one on a journey that’s going to take a long, long time,” he said. The museum staff is working with the town on how to incorporate Snowmass Village’s new claim to fame into marketing efforts, and to determine what sort of permanent acknowledgment of the finds is appropriate.”You have an opportunity to build something here that’s really lasting,” Sparks said.Asked if that meant a museum of sorts in Snowmass, Town Manager Russ Forrest said, “There’s certainly a lot of expectations in the community.”The Snowmass Water and Sanitation District reached a deal with the museum to handle the excavation, turning the bones over to the museum in exchange for a cast of what the parties assumed would be a mammoth – the first find at the site. The bones technically belong to the state because the reservoir property belongs to a government entity – the district, Johnson explained.”We consider it a sacred trust to preserve these things,” Sparks said.The Water and Sanitation District still intends to have the site under water a year from now, said district manager Kit Hamby. The reservoir is being enlarged to provide water storage for the town’s future needs.The excavation has gone beyond what the town expected to get done this fall, though crews have not removed more material than was envisioned before the discovery of a mammoth in the peat on Oct. 14, said Joe Enzer, the district’s representative on the project. The earthmoving taking place currently is being done now, instead of next year, to facilitate the museum’s work, he said.Much of the 11-acre reservoir will not, however, be excavated to the depth where fossils are currently being discovered. The unanswered question is what else is there, but finding out – excavating more than is currently planned – is a directive that would have to come from the community, Johnson said. And, additional excavation takes money. The Water and Sanitation District is spending $6 million on the reservoir enlargement.Where the big machines continues to move mud, scientists and volunteers have plenty of discoveries to keep them busy.Even before the scientists could don their “mud clothes” and get out to the dig site following Friday’s press conference, the field crew was uncovering a third bison find and another mammoth or mastodon – they weren’t sure which.Why the animals are concentrated at the peat bog, a one-time glacial lake, is something the experts will be working to determine, Johnson said.”We’re trying to find out what this is,” he said.The peat, in which insects, snails, vegetation and pollen grains have been preserved, will be carefully analyzed, providing a picture of what the landscape looked like when the mastodons and mammoths were munching the flora, according to Johnson.He said he hopes to get a free-lance artist out to the site to begin work on a re-creation of what the scene might have looked like some 12,000 years ago.Local residents aren’t permitted up to the reservoir to see what it looks like now, but they will have another chance to see a selection of the bones, on Nov. 13, when a Mammoth and Mastodon Madness Day is scheduled at the town’s recreation center. An exhibit and educational programming geared toward kids is planned. A similar event is scheduled Nov. 20 at the museum in