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Help Excavate a Columbian Mammoth

$16,376
204%
Raised toward our $8,000 Goal
68 Donors
Project has ended
Project ended on May 06, at 12:00 PM PDT
Project Owners

Amargosa Valley Mammoth Site trenches have been back-filled. Lab work continues.

December 21, 2018

A few weeks ago, my grad student Lauren Parry and I brought a backhoe and operator to our mammoth site and we back-filled the trenches, restoring the site to its pre-excavation topography.  The photo below shows what the site looks like now.  

 

Lab work is continuing in our paleo prep lab at the Las Vegas Natural History Musuem.  Two of my undergrads spent the fall semester excavating tusks from one of our field plaster jackets, under Lauren's guidance.  I spent part of the fall sorting and identifying tiny snails and clams from the sediment that surrounded our mammoth. We will soon be sending samples for additional radiocarbon dates and pollen analysis to commercial labs.  Your donations have made this possible.

 

Meanwhile, Lauren and I are engaged in a parallel study of Columbian mammoth demographics.  Part of Lauren's PhD dissertation research involves a comparison of the age profile of Columbian mammoths in Southern Nevada with those that have been recovered from the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles.  We do this by measuring molars.  Mammoth (and elephant) molars moved horizontally through the jaws, with progressively larger teeth pushing out smaller ones.  We can tell from the morphology of the molar how old the animal was when it died. Our Southern Nevada study uses a wonderful assemblage of mammoth molars from the Gilcrease mammoth site (near the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary in northwestern Las Vegas).  And we are also measuring molars from the La Brea Tar Pits.  You might have guessed that the mammoths teeth recovered from the Tar Pits have already been studied to death, but they have hardly been studied at all.  The molars we have been measuring in the La Brea collection are covered with several decades of dust.

 

Sometime in 2019 we are planning a reception at our prep lab in the Las Vegas Natural History Museum so that our generous donors can see the results of our labors and their donations.

 

Happy Holidays from your mammoth research team! 

 

 

 

 

Our Field Work is Complete!

May 14, 2018

A few weeks ago we collected the last plaster jacket of bones and tusks from our Amargosa Valley mammoth site and transferred them to the paleo prep lab in the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. We are excited to move on to the next phase of this project, which will involve the cleaning, identification, and analysis of the bones and tusks that we collected.  As things turned out, we were not able to recover as much of this animal's skeleton as we had hoped.  Due to a surprisingly high water table, much of the skeleton was wet for the past 20,000 years, and those portions simply dissolved away in the alkaline groundwater.  Until we work through the bathtub-size plaster jackets that we applied in the field,  we won't know for sure which bones we recovered.  The tusks that we recovered are about two feet long; we were hoping for 16-foot-long tusks---the approximate length of this animal's tusks when he died---but the distal portions had dissolved away.

The photo below shows our small crew of volunteers on the day we collected the last plaster jacket. The two tusks are on the right, curving down to the left.  The people in the photo are: kneeling left to right me (Steve Rowland) and geology student Malik Milton. Standing: PhD student Lauren Parry (with "thumb's up" gesture); left to right in back: UNLV geology students Matt Hopkins and Kristen Rode, and alumnus Cameron Rickerson.  Thanks to your donations, about 60 UNLV students worked on this project over the past year and a half, in addition to many donors. And several UNLV students will continue with the lab and analysis portion of this research project.

Although we were not able to recover the whole skeleton, the portions we did recover will provide a huge amount of information about the life of this animal.  In addition to studying the bones and tusks for anatomical data, we will be doing isotopic analyses of the tusks to determine aspects of the animal's diet and whether it traveled widely during the last few years of its life. Tusks of elephants and their relatives continue to grow throughout the lifetime of the animal. The tusks we recovered record approximately the last ten years of this animal's life.  We will also be analyzing small snails and clams in the matrix surrounding the bones and tusks, as well as the pollen.  Our goal is to reconstruct the environment in which this animal lived and died, as completely as possible.

A huge thank you to all of our wonderful donors. Once we have some of the fossils prepped and ready for view, we will be inviting you to a "viewing" event at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum.  I will continue to provide updates, whenever we have new information to share. Vive le mammut!

What our excavation site looks like now

March 14, 2018

Here is a photo of our site as it looks today---a big difference from what it looked like last spring. We're getting ready to remove a couple of the plaster jacketed bones and bone assemblages, which we will do over spring break, the last week of March. The plaster jackets are the white things in the middle of the island.

Mammoth Island

March 14, 2018

In early January we arranged for a backhoe to dig a trench around our excavation site to help us move forward with this project and begin to excavate horizontally. When I visited the site a week later I was surprised to find our trench flooded with about two feet of water. It turns out that the water table out there is considerably higher than I expected. If we pumped the water out of the trench, it would simply flow back in, so we decided to go with the flow, so to speak.

 

Our next work visit with student volunteers in late January was unseasonably warm, so I told some of the students to plan to get wet. They were fine with that, and we made good progress whittling down the sides of "Mammoth Island" (a name suggested by Malik Milton, one of my stalwart student volunteers). As shown in the photo below, we're filling up the moat with dirt from our excavation, and soon the water will not be much of a problem.

 

Meanwhile, my grad student Lauren Parry has been working with the students to put plaster jackets on the exposed bone. The plaster jackets consist of layers of burlap strips soaked in a thick soup of plaster of Paris. The burlap strips are separated from the bone by aluminum foil and damp paper towels. We will be putting additional layers of plaster on some of these jackets, to further strengthen them, and then we will be removing them and transporting them to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum prep lab where they will be cleaned up and analyzed. We have jacketed several bones and the proximal ends of the tusks, but we have not yet found any of the heavy bones, such as leg bones and vertebrae (except for possibly one or two neck vertebrae). We are expecting to find these heavy bones when we excavate deeper.

 

We plan to spend several days at the site during the UNLV spring break, which is the last week of March. We should be able to make good progress during that time. Also, a colleague of mine who is a drone pilot will be visiting us during that week and documenting our progress from about 200 feet above the ground.

Our excavation is back on track

January 24, 2018

I apologize to our donors for the long silence about the status of this project. During the fall, my grad student Lauren Parry and I were busy with other commitments. We presented a progress report on this project at an international conference on mammoth paleontology in Taiwan, and also at a Geological Society of America conference in Seattle. To transition to the next phase of this excavation we needed to excavate a trench around our core excavation site, which required the approval of our Bureau of Land Management partners. All of that was finally accomplished, and last Friday we got a backhoe out to our site and our trenches were successfully dug. See the photo below. The site certainly looks much different than it did last spring--like a castle with a  four and a half-foot-deep moat around it---and I'm excited to get back to work excavating tusks and bones. 

 

This winter and spring we will resume our excavation sporadically in February and March, one day and a time, and during the UNLV spring break (the last week of March) I plan to camp at the site with students for several days and get as much accomplished as possible. Thank you again to our generous donors. Things will be moving much faster over the next few months, and updates will be much more frequent.

What's happening with the Amargosa Valley mammoth dig????

November 01, 2017

Lots of people have been asking about the status of our mammoth excavation, so I want to provide an update. My PhD student Lauren Parry and I have been very busy with lots of mammoth-related research, but the site itself has lain dormant since last spring. The next step in the project is to excavate a trench around our site with a backhoe. I'll explain the reason for that below.  Digging this trench requires approval from the Bureau of Land Management, so we are discussing all of this with our BLM colleagues.  We hope to have the green light to proceed with this aspect of the project very soon.

Meanwhile, based on the results of our first field season and discussions with other mammoth paleontologists at a recent international conference in Taiwan that Lauren and I attended, we have some new ideas about how our mammoth (whose name is Dane) ended up with his tusks stuck downward into the ground (a unique situation in the annals of mammoth paleontology). Our revised taphonomic model involves quicksand. (Taphonomy is the study of everything that happens to an organism between the moment it dies and the moment we discover its fossilized remains; this word comes from the same root as epitaph.)  We now strongly suspect that our mammoth waded into a pond and got stuck in quicksand. It died there, and its skeleton fell apart and sank into the quicksand. Because of this upright position, its tusks and skull ended up oriented straight down into the quicksand. 

The really exciting aspect of this new scenario is that the rest of the animal's bones would not have drifted away from the tusks, as I feared had happened in our earlier model.  After the animal got stuck in the quicksand and died, its body would have been out of the range of most predators, and the bones would have fallen into the quicksand and descended downward a short distance. If this new model is correct, or nearly so, the rest of Dane's bones should be about five feet below the proximal ends of the tusks (which are exposed at the surface). 

And that's why our next step is  to excavate a 4.5-foot-deep trench around the site. The trench will allow us to progress more quickly by excavating horizontally. In addition, the smooth wall of the trench will allow us to carefully examine the stratigraphy (the characteristics of the layers), to test our quicksand hypothesis.

So stay tuned. A lot has been going on with this project, even though we haven't moved any dirt for awhile. 

In September we presented an update on this project at an international mammoth conference in Taiwan

September 27, 2017

My PhD student Lauren Parry and I recently returned from Taiwan where we participated in an International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives. See the photo below. These international mammoth conferences are held every three years, each time in a different location, allowing mammoth paleontologists from various countries to gather, examine fossils, and exchange information and ideas about the paleontology of fossil elephants. Lauren and I presented an update of our Amargosa mammoth excavation and we shared ideas about this site with colleagues.

Lauren also presented new results from another mammoth project she is working on which involves pygmy mammoth fossils from the Channel Islands of California.  It is a well-known phenomenon that when elephants are isolated on islands for a long time they evolve into smaller animals, and that's what happened on the Channel Islands of California. Columbian mammoths apparently swam to the Channel Islands during the Pleistocene Ice Age. Sea level was lower when Ice Age glaciers expanded. The Channel Islands were never connected by dry land to mainland California, but the distance between the islands and the mainland was much shorter than today. After a population of mammoths became established on the islands, natural selection favored a smaller size, and a new species of pygmy mammoths evolved. It is named Mammuthus exilis---the exiled mammoths. The smaller mammoths required less food and water, and they could also navigate the steep slopes of the islands better than the much larger Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi)  

We will resume our Amargosa Valley excavation of a Columbian mammoth this fall, but not until late October or early November. There are other competing things going on, such as the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Seattle in October, where Lauren and I will also be presenting an update on our Amargosa Valley project.

---Steve Rowland     

Ground-Penetrating Radar Study of our Mammoth Site

May 21, 2017

On May 20 we worked at the site, accompanied by several of our fantastic donors. Larry Williams, the Amagosa Valley man who discovered this site, visited us and we were able to discuss with him how he discovered it. One of the highlights of the day was the presence of a team of geophysicists who conducted a ground-penetrating radar survey of our site. Below are some photos of the survey in progress, showing Jimmy Houda (black shorts) operating two different types of transmitters, with Jim O'Donnell  (blue, long-sleeved shirt) guiding the survey. We have no results yet, but we are hopeful that this survey will indicate where more bones are buried. Stay tuned. I'll post a new update as soon as we have results from the survey.

Oops. Correction to KNPR State of Nevada

May 03, 2017

Oops! Our interview will be on KNPR 88.9, not 89.3.  I hope you can tune in and hear Lauren and me talk about this mammoth and related topics.

KNPR interview to be broadcast on Friday, May 5

May 03, 2017

We are now on the home stretch of our fundraising campaign. A mammoth "thank you" to all of our generous donors. We are 83% of the way to achieving our goal of $8,000, and we're hopeful that we will get there by this weekend. My PhD student, Lauren Parry, and I were interviewed about the project this afternoon on KNPR (FM 89.3). The interview will be broadcast this Friday, May 5, sometime between 9:00 and 10:00 am, as part of their "State of Nevada" program. It will then be re-broadcast between 7:00 and 8:00 pm on Friday evening. After that it will be available in the KNPR archives.

Three of our undergraduate student volunteers (Becky Humphrey, Malik Milton, and Kristen Rode) presented a poster on the project last Friday at our annual Geosymposium science expo. Below is a photo of Malik and Becky with their poster. 

Eleven-year old Ethan Patton helped us dig deeper on Sunday

May 01, 2017

We excavated at our mammoth site on Sunday, April 30. With the help of eleven-year old Ethan Patton and his dad Mikey, we continued to expose more of this animal's skeleton. Ethan assisted UNLV grad student Lauren Parry put a plaster jacket on a somewhat mysterious, fragile, curved bone. The plaster jacket will prevent the bone from falling apart in the field. We'll record the precise location of the bone in our quarry, and then take it to our prep lab at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum where it will be cleaned up and studied in detail. The photos below show Ethan and also UNLV geology student Malik Milton examining a freshwater snail shell.

Two donors helped us excavate on April 21

April 22, 2017

We're making good progress on the excavation, and Donors Penny Schultz (black top/gray cap) and Margie Stanger (blue top/floppy hat) were in the field with us on April 21st. We put them to work. They both worked hard and contributed a lot to the project (in addition to their generous financial contributions).  Thanks for your great help, Penny and Margie.

We constructed a plaster jacket on a cluster of fractured bones, and we continued to excavate deeper.  I am hoping to get the tusks removed by the end of May.  The Geoscience Department's annual Geosymposium event is coming up this week (Friday April 28) with a Geosymposium field trip on Saturday, so this weekend we're all busy with that. At Geosymposium, our undergrads and grad students who have been involved in research projects present the results to visitors from the Las Vegas geological community and beyond. Three of my undergrad students (Becky Humphrey, Kristen Rode, and Malik Milton) will be presenting a poster on the Amargosa Valley excavation project at Geosymposium.  

We may be excavating again on Sunday the 30th   

 

Levels
Choose a giving level

$10

Giant Ground Sloth

A contribution at this level will help us buy supplies for this project, such as brushes, trowels, and dental picks.

$25

Ice-Age Camel

Your contribution at this level will assist in purchasing chemical consolidants (we use a product called Paraloid) to stabilize the bone as it is exposed, and the acetone we need to dissolve the Paraloid, as well as plaster of Paris we use to make plaster jackets.

$50

Dire Wolf

Your contribution at this level will go a long way toward supporting our transportation to the excavation site. We pay $115 per day for the use of each UNLV vehicle.

$100

Saber-Tooth Cat

Your contribution at this level will go toward the expense of removing heavy, plaster-jacket-wrapped bones and tusks from the excavation site and transporting them to the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. We may need to contract with a company with construction equipment to accomplish this.

$500

Columbian Mammoth

Your very generous contribution at this level will pay for radiocarbon dates (@ $300) and pollen analyses (several hundred dollars) to properly date these fossils and study the environment in which the animal lived. Donors at this level are cordially invited to visit our excavation site and assist in the excavation.

$1,000

Naming-rights level

We invite one generous donor to help us find an appropriate name for this mammoth, as well as to visit the excavation site. Perhaps you would like to name it after one of your children or grandchildren. The chosen name will become the permanent appelation of this mammoth.