Paleontologists Still Unveiling Snowmass Ice Age Fossils

Feb 17, 2014

   Scientists are still examining some of the mammoth bones found at a big dig in Snowmass.  The discovery took place more than three years ago-- but the painstaking review of the ice age fossils means that it could take years to thoroughly examine everything that was found. The Ice Age Discovery Center recently unveiled a mammoth tusk that’s been wrapped up in a protective jacket.


   Paleontologist Tom Temme is carefully scraping a thousands-year-old mastodon tusk. The massive creatures are related to the mammoth. “I'm just removing some of the clay like material that's sticking to the tusk…so I'm using a solvent that is also a type of stabilizer, so it's gonna soak into the fossil a little bit. And that allows us to continue working on the surface of the fossil without having to worry about it breaking apart or cracking or anything like that.”

“This is kind of what we do to see the entire thing, is slowly removed the sediment or the dirt from around the fossil. And then once we have that uncovered we can do some detailed work in getting all the little pieces off. So that all that's left is just fossil.”

 When researchers found the tusk back in 2010, they bundled it up with the dirt surrounding it, putting canvas and plaster around it -- like a cast you put around a broken bone. Except in this case, it’s called a jacket. Paleontologists are slowly working their way through the different bones and other items found in the dig… and now, this tusk’s time has come. Last Thursday, February 13th. Temme cut through the canvas and plaster jacket… and now he’s cleaning the tusk and looking for clues.

 “You can see all these little scratches up here, these are probably from use, from actually roughhousing either with trees or other mastodons. But then there’s also marks on here that are clearly from being buried in a rocky type of mud.”

   “So, the techniques we use, as we work on a fossil, are relatively sophisticated, but the tools sometimes aren’t. So this is just a regular medical scalpel, and it works really nice for getting underneath the dirt that’s sitting on the fossil. And you can really kind of slide it under there, and pop off the dirt, without scratching or cutting the fossil. We also use things like chopsticks, we use dental equipment, we use brushes… I mean there's a lot of things that you can pretty much find in any supermarket or you know hardware store that we use to uncover these fossils.”

   “It's kind of cool, you can see this is part of that shoreline that these things were laying on, and part of that shoreline actually slumped off or slid into the ancient reservoir, and you can see things that were on the shoreline with it. Pieces of wood, pieces of plant; there’ll be other pieces of bone in here. And then hopefully if we look hard enough we'll see microfossils. Here's a little… oh, that was just a little piece of wood.”

 But if you go to the Ice Age Discovery Center in Snowmass Village, you will also see tiny fossilized bones-- like from rats, and even really, really old bugs. Not to mention also seeing the tusk, of course.