Mastodon, more mammoths found

 

Construction crews excavating the Ziegler Reservoir just outside of Snowmass Village uncovered a mastodon tooth Thursday, as well five large tusks in three different locations.

While much more will learned when scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science arrive on scene today, it appears that bones from at least four different mammoths have now been uncovered at the site, plus the signs that a mastodon took its last steps there.

“Mastodons are very rare in Colorado, so that makes it very exciting,” said Laura Holtman, the director of public relations for the Denver museum.

The mastodon tooth is thought to be anywhere from 100,000 to 1.5 million years old and is a smaller, stockier and much older species than mammoths, which apparently last roamed around what is now Snowmass Village about 10,000 years ago.

The tooth may mark only the fourth time that evidence of a mastodon has been found in Colorado.

Crews from Gould Construction working for the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District first uncovered mammoth bones on Oct. 14 in the reservoir, which sits in a natural depression just off of Divide Road and in line with Sam’s Knob at the Snowmass Ski Area.


Dr. Steven Holen, a mammoth expert from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, has determined that the first animal discovered in a layer of peat was a juvenile Columbian mammoth. Most of what is believed to be an intact skeleton of the mammoth is still in the ground and is now sheltered under a 40-by-40 feet white tent.

Holen and two other experts from the museum were on site Wednesday as construction crews were carefully moving dirt in a layer of silt, about 10 feet deeper in the earth from where the first mammoth was found and about 25 yards away.

The earthmoving machine then turned up several huge bone fragments that Holen identified on site as parts of the upper front leg of a large male Columbian mammoth, which weighed up to 10 tons and at 13 feet tall, were about 2 feet taller than today’s African elephants.

“He was very impressed,” said Kit Hamby, the director of the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District. “I think we all knew it was a big mammoth when you have just a shard of a bone that weighs probably 40 pounds.”

On Thursday, knowing that at least two mammoths had been found, watchful crews from Gould walking alongside a bulldozer found a breathtaking array of what appeared to be mammoth tusks, all a stone’s throw from where the first mammoth was found. One section of tusk, put on a scale in the district’s office, weighed 50 pounds.

“And that’s probably just a small portion of the actual tusk,” Hamby said.

A pair tusks were dug up on Thursday in one location on the site. Then another pair of tusks was found in another nearby spot, and one of those tusks, which looked cracked, was left in the ground. A lone tusk was found in another location.

And then the mastodon tooth was found in yet another spot.

“We were carefully watching as we worked with the bulldozer, and carefully going through the pile by hand, and turned this up,” said Joe Enzer, a construction consultant working as the owner’s representative on the project for the water and sanitation district, who came into district’s office Thursday afternoon holding the ancient mastodon tooth. 

“Every time we turn around, we’re turning something up now,” Enzer said.

Holen, the mammoth expert at the museum and also curator of archaeology, has not yet seen the actual tusks but he was able to verify from a photo of the mastodon tooth that it was definitely a mastodon tooth.

Mammoths were mainly plains animals that grazed on grass, which is one reason why finding them at 8,850 feet is unusual. In fact, the Snowmass mammoths are at a higher elevation than any others found in the U.S.

Mastodons have teeth more suited to their diet of branches, twigs, leaves and roots, and have clearly different teeth patterns than mammoths.

That makes six different locations within an acre of land where bones or tusks have been found, but it is not clear if all of the bones, teeth and tusks are from separate animals.

As of Thursday night, spokesperson Holtman from the Denver museum was most comfortable saying that a mastodon tooth had definitely been found and that “multiple” mammoths had been found.

But given that there is the one juvenile mammoth in the ground and that three different sets of tusks also have been found, that puts the total mammoth count somewhat reliably at four.

“There are so many unknowns right now,” Holtman stressed.

So far, there has been no evidence unearthed of ancient human activity at the site, nor have the bones of another type of extinct animal, such as a short-faced bear, turned up.

On Thursday, Holen is expected to be on site to begin laying out the dig, which will seek to recover bones as well as look for clues about insects, leaves, seeds and other life forms in the layers of peat and silt, which are both resting on top of a bed of rocky glacial moraine.

Construction crews on the site remarked on Thursday on how few rocks are in the soil. There were virtually no rocks in the peat layer and very few in the silt layer, which is unusual for construction sites in the Roaring Fork River Valley. While standing in the reservoir below the white tent now covering the original mammoth, the distinct layers of peat and silt are easy to discern.

Attorneys representing the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Snowmass Water and Sanitation District have been working all week on a formal agreement between the two entities that would make the bones the property of the museum but also make sure that replicas of the creatures are made available for display in Snowmass Village. The agreement is expected to be signed today.

One complicating factor for the attorneys over the past two days has been the increasing number of animals that have been discovered on the site.

The impending archeological dig is not expected to hamper the progress of the district’s effort to excavate the 15-acre reservoir site, as they have been able to remove about 95 percent of the dirt they had planned on moving this fall before resuming work in the spring, Hamby said.

The water and sanitation district’s office has been transformed over the last week into something of a mini-museum, as employees have been turned into curators, carefully keeping the bones on display moist and then wrapping them in plastic at the end of the day.

The still moist bones, which are not fossilized, will be on display today, Saturday and Sunday at the district’s office and then are expected to begin heading to the Denver museum to be taken care of by the museum’s curatorial staff.

The bones will be on display today from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m., and on Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The district’s offices are behind the Snowmass Club off of Highline Road in Snowmass Village.

bgs@aspendailynews.com