What lies beneath ... Snowmass

25th January 2011, by Chris Gill

The big freeze was here ...  Copyright © Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The big freeze was here ... Copyright © Denver Museum of Nature & Science

Once in a while ski resort development unearths a fascinating secret. How does an ice age graveyard sound?

Last October, contractors working on the drained Ziegler reservoir at Snowmass, Colorado, uncovered the fossilised remains of an ice age mammoth. Since then the site has revealed hundreds more bones, the resting place of animals that died up to 150,000 years ago.

Never mind the 20th Century Fox film about cute Paleolithic creatures: this is the real McCoy. Up to four mammoths, ten mastodons (related to the elephant), bison, a sloth and an ice age deer lay preserved beneath Snowmass Village while modern man slid around on two planks nearby.

The remains are believed to be the one of the largest collections of animals from the last ice age to be found in one place. Among the best find was a bison, with three-foot long horns and an eight-foot wide skull. These were big animals, far larger than their 21st century descendants.

Teams from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as a London university, have been working on the excavation, which has also uncovered remarkably preserved plant and insect life too.

Chief curator, Dr Kirk Johnson said: “Many of the fossils are pristine as they have been very well preserved. Some of the bones we recovered are still white while we are finding leaves that are still green and tree branches with the bark still on. From what we have found it is clear the area was covered by a forest, but then later it seems to have become a marsh.”

The animals died between 50,000 and 150,000 years ago, but what attracted so many species to one place? Scientists believe that it was the site of an ancient lake, which provided their drinking source. Changes to that ecosystem over the years explains why certain animals have been found at the site together.

The palaeontologists are now piecing together the mysteries, while the resort is already promoting its ice age history through a dedicated website (‘I dig Snowmass’). This gives details of the excavation, the resort and educational projects planned – a local museum is likely

So, next time you’re watching the ‘sub-zero heros’ Manfred, Scrat and Sid, imagine them in Snowmass Village. Incidentally, locals have now voted to name the first mammoth found as ‘Snowy’. The Columbian mammoth, a young female, was discovered on 14 October 2010.

Links: www.snowmassiceage.com

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