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Denver Museum of Nature & Science to Begin Excavation of Snowmass Mammoth Site

The Denver Museum of Nature & Science will begin excavation of a significant Columbian mammoth fossil site near Snowmass Village on Tuesday, November 2, after reaching a written agreement today with the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District for the donation of the fossils. Several additional mammoths and a mastodon tooth have been uncovered by work crews at the site this week, making this one of the most significant scientific discoveries in Colorado history.

The original discovery of a single juvenile Columbian mammoth was made by a bulldozer operator working on the expansion of Ziegler Reservoir on October 14. The worker unearthed approximately 25 percent of the original mammoth’s bones, which were cleaned and put on display in the District’s office in Snowmass Village. Hundreds of local residents have come to the office to view the bones since their discovery.

“I want to thank the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District for donating these awe-inspiring fossils to the Museum,” said George Sparks, the Museum’s president and CEO. “The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is the proper home for the Rocky Mountain Region’s biggest scientific discoveries, and it is our mission to share them with the public. We are thrilled that the fossils will be studied by scientists from around the world, and become part of the Museum’s permanent collection where they will be preserved for future generations.”

Museum staff who visited Snowmass on Wednesday were extremely impressed with the professionalism of Kit Hamby, director of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District, and his team. “They have done a superb job of managing the discovery, stabilizing the site, and caring for the bones that have been collected to date. We are eager to work with them on the next phase of this incredible discovery,” said Dr. Kirk Johnson, the Museum’s chief curator and vice president of research and collections.

The excavation of the Snowmass site will be directed by Dr. Ian Miller, curator of paleontology and chair of the Museum’s Earth Science Department, and Dr. Steve Holen, curator of archaeology and the Museum’s resident mammoth expert. Holen will be on site over the weekend to monitor ongoing construction, remove any additional bone that is unearthed by work crews, and map the dig site in preparation for the beginning of the excavation on Tuesday. The excavation crew consists of Museum scientists, educators and volunteers who have completed training through the Museum’s Paleontology Certification Program.

With the District’s permission, the Museum will arrange visits to the dig site for students and media, as long as weather and working conditions permit. Once the dig begins, the Museum will provide regular updates about the progress of the excavation on its website,

The team excavating the mammoth site will take great care in their approach to the dig. “We do not know if this site contains just mammoth and mastodon bones, or whether there may be evidence of human interaction with the bones, as well. For that reason, we will be cautious and use precise and careful techniques of excavating in a grid and screening all of the sediments surrounding the bones so we don’t miss anything,” said Holen.

Not including the finds made in Snowmass, 103 mammoth discoveries and only three mastodon discoveries are on record in Colorado. This discovery in Snowmass is considered especially significant because it is very unusual to find more than one mammoth at a single site, and there are no other sites in Colorado that contain both mammoth and mastodon fossils in one location. In addition, the juvenile Columbian mammoth that was first uncovered by the bulldozer operator appears to be the most complete mammoth fossil found at high elevation (8,960 feet) in Colorado.

Scientists will learn more specific details about the mammoths and mastodon as they excavate and study the specimens. They will attempt to determine the age of the animals when they died, and possibly the sex of the animals. In addition, they will attempt to extract DNA from the fossils, and conduct radiocarbon dating of the specimens and surrounding sediments to determine the age of the dig site itself. Right now, scientists estimate the fossils date to the end of the last Ice Age, approximately 12,000 to 16,000 years ago. Also of interest to scientists is the extremely well-preserved plant material found in the dig site. The Museum will analyze the material with help from outside scientists who specialize in the study of Ice Age ecosystems from universities and the United States Geological Survey.

One of the immediate priorities for the Museum staff is the preservation of the fossils. “The bone is wet and we need to determine the best strategy to carefully dry the bone and preserve it. If wet bone dries too quickly it will crack and disintegrate,” said Holen.

Under the terms of the Museum’s agreement with the District, the Museum will assume the responsibility and cost for the excavation, transportation and preservation of the fossils. The District has generously agreed to provide a heated tent and to help with round-the-clock security at the dig site while the excavation is underway. The Museum will create high-quality cast models of the bones of one of the mammoths and give them to the District for public display. Because of the length of the preservation process, it may take as long as two years to deliver the casts. The Museum will also produce a plaque or other interpretive material that can be displayed along with the bone casts. After initial research and analysis of the fossil is complete, Museum scientists will return to the Roaring Fork Valley and make presentations about their findings at local schools.

“One of the great things about living in the American West is that amazing fossils can be found in all sorts of places. The Snowmass mammoth is a perfect example of how alert workers can make discoveries that have great significance,” said Johnson. “The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is excited to build on this discovery and to develop the scientific potential of this amazing site.”###About the Denver Museum of Nature & Science The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is the Rocky Mountain Region’s leading resource for informal science education. A variety of engaging exhibits, discussions and activities help Museum visitors celebrate and understand the natural wonders of Colorado, Earth and the universe.

Image: Snowmass Mammoth Excavation Site © Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The Museum is located at 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO, 80205.

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