Grits and Purls

Spinning yarns about the grit of life


DSC01928We are back from nine days traveling in the “wild west”. During this vacation my daughter was able to become a junior paleontologist at a mammoth dig, a junior ranger at Mount Rushmore, go “spelunking” at Wind Cave and learn about the geologic origins of the Black Hills of South Dakota, hear the legends and stories of the Native Americans through their dance and music, and hear the legends and stories of the pioneers of the western U.S. through their stories and dramas.

Our first stop was the amazing Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota. This site was discovered during the early phases of construction of a housing development in 1974 by one of the bulldozer operators who was clearing the land. Fortunately, he was an amateur paleontologist, and when his bulldozer turned up a mammoth tooth, he stopped everything and reported the finding. The developer and the surrounding community realized what they had and preserved the site for research and education. They bring in visiting scientists from around the world to work at the site, and from the work of these scientists we have learned much about the animal life that flourished in the area we now know as South Dakota 26,000 years ago.

This site, which was a sink hole that filled with water, became the resting place of 61 mammoths. The mammoths, all male, would come to the water to eat, drink or bathe. The clay sides of the sink hole would be too slippery for them to climb up and back out. Most of the mammoths are the colossal Columbian mammoths, but the scientists have also found a few woolly mammoths at the site—the first time fossils of both species of mammoths have been found together in the same site. Along with the mammoths, the scientists have unearthed bones belonging to a giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, wolf. Imprint fossils of birds, fish, and shelled animals have also been discovered.

The sink hole bed indicates that about one mammoth was lost to it every 12 -13 years, during the 300-700 that it was filled with water. Slowly the sink hole filled with sediment, minerals and the artesian spring that had supplied it diverted to the Fall River. The hardened sediment became more stable than the soft shale that surrounded the sink hole, and eventually it was revealed, 26,000 years later.

The fossils at this site have not been petrified—they are bone and are very fragile. So they are being left as found and displayed in a climate-controlled building (now two stories high—or deep, if you think about it as a sink hole).

After we had an excellent tour of the fossil bed, our daughter was able to participate in her own junior paleontologist fossil dig—complete with trowel, brushes and scoop made out of a large detergent box. Imagine 20 children all digging in a small area of dirt gridded with yellow caution tape, exclaiming “I found something” at various times.

We made an attempt at cleaning off our junior paleontologist’s dirty feet and headed toward our next adventure, thankful for the sharp eyes of a bulldozer operator, the wisdom of a landowner and the creativity of scientists to figure out how to share all of this with the general public.

©2014 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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