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Woolly Mammoths in South Dakota

Woolly Mammoths in South Dakota
by Candyce H. Stapen

On a visit to the Mammoth Site, Hot Springs, South Dakota, time travel back to the Ice Age when Columbian and Wooly mammoths roamed the region. The remarkable facility is one of the world’s largest and richest mammoth sites, one where the big animals’ bones lie in situ, or as found.

Some 26,000 years ago during the Ice Age, or Pleistocene era, mammoths lumbered over to a pond to drink. However, a giant sinkhole had collapsed part of the pond’s bottom, resulting in a 60+ foot deep death trap for the thirsty animals who never escaped.

Their bones remained buried for eons. In 1974, a developer planning to construct houses on the land broke the ground, discovering the critters’ remains. A building was constructed over the quarry to preserve and to protect the site, making both access and research possible year-round.

Inside the facility, you walk along a series of ramps that encircle the dig. It’s easy to imagine the animals’ huge size as several of the skeletons remain mostly in tact. Curved tusks lie near a giant jawbone. Long thigh and leg bones protrude from the dirt. Skeletal ribs outline the massive girth of these extinct animals. Look carefully and you also discover smaller fossils of young mammoths.

By counting tusks, paleontologists estimate that at least 58 mammoths perished here. With more to be unearthed. Also uncovered: fossils of a camel and a giant short-faced bear.

The Hot Springs’ site is one of the few known where remains of Columbian mammoths have been found alongside woolly mammoths. The larger Columbian species, 14 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 8-10 tons, frequented the frozen plains of what became Alaska and the Yukon. The smaller woolly mammoths known for thick tufts of hair, stood 11-feet tall at the shoulder and weighed 6-8. They ranged from northern Europe and Siberia into North America.

Year-round the site is fascinating, but in summer the place is especially interesting as you can watch paleontologists carefully dig and dust the dirt from new-found remains. Earthwatch sponsors supervised digs at the site for ages 16-99. Places are generally filled well in advance.

Visiting kids, however, ages 4 to 13, can take part in the Mammoth Site’s Junior Paleontologist program, available June 1 to August 15. In an area separate from the actual quarry, kids dig for buried replicas of fossils. Not only do participants learn about mammoths, but children also get hands-on experience using the tools and techniques of paleontology. Reserve in advance for these popular 60-90 minute sessions.

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