Ever since the news broke that a bulldozer operator discovered rib bones of an extinct mammoth while working on the expansion of a reservoir in Snowmass Village in mid-October, the entire Aspen/Snowmass community — stretching down the Roaring Fork Valley and perhaps across the state of Colorado — has followed the exciting developments as Denver Museum of Nature & Science (DMNS) scientists have discovered daily even more bones of all sorts of different prehistoric animals. So far, in the Ziegler Reservoir site, which preserves an entire Ice Age lake, crews have excavated the bones of:
- 2 Columbian mammoths
- 3 Ice Age bison
- 1 Jefferson ground sloth (never before found in Colorado
- 5 American Mastodon
- 1 small salamander
- 1 Ice Age deer
Today, during “Mammoth and Mastodon Madness” event in Snowmass Village (nicknamed for the day “Snowmasstodon Village”), my husband, son, two nephews and I saw some of the bones unearthed from the ground in recent weeks, and we generally celebrated with other local residents “one of the most important paleontological sites in Colorado.” DMNS, which has overseen the excavation of the bones since the initial discovery, organized the event, which drew 3,000 people.
Not only could we check out the bones unearthed from Snowmass Village, such as mastodon ribs and a mammoth femur, but we touched some mastodon and mammoth teeth from the museum’s education collection (these had already fossilized and are rock hard, while the just-excavated fossils are quite fragile, and therefore untouchable). We also snapped our pictures with life-size artist renderings of a Columbian mammoth, Ice Age bison and American mastodon, and listened to DMNS Chief Curator Dr. Kirk Johnson and DMNS Curator of Paleontology Dr. Ian Miller answer questions from the crowd.
In fact, one of the museum curators told us today at 1 p.m. that 20 minutes earlier, still more bones — perhaps from yet another species — had just been discovered! Young children may not have understood the historical significance of these amazing prehistoric finds — but they sure had fun building 3-D Columbian mammoth puzzles, “digging” for their own fossils in big tubs of pseudo-dirt, and coloring their own mastodon hats.
The crowd generated such and excited buzz at the public event today; we all recognized how significant this paleontological find was — and how cool it’s right in our backyard! In fact, it wasn’t just Roaring Fork Valley residents who came to enjoy the free day of activities — I spotted my dental hygienist in the crowd, and she lives in Rifle, at least a two-hour drive away.
We waited for about 80 minutes in a long line that snaked through the hallways in the Base Village Conference Center. Of my little group, I think I was most excited to see the fossils on display, as my 8-year-old son and his young cousins had already seen some of the bones when a DMNS educator had visited valley schools with some of the fossils in tow. I applaud the Denver-based museum for their educational outreach efforts — I’m thrilled that nearly 6,000 local kids had the unexpected opportunity learn about the fossils firsthand.
Unfortunately, with snowflakes falling, the DMNS staff must now return to Denver with the cache and begin the laborious work of preserving, studying and cataloging the bones, some of which are estimated to be between 43,000 and 120,000 years old. One of the scientists was quoted in the local paper saying, “None of us really wants to go,” which I can understand, since it appears as if there are many more bones that are waiting to be found.
The scientific team plans to return in in May, when the weather warms and the ground is softer. In the meantime, the fossils still left in the ground will be protected by the dirt and deep snow in the winter. Heck, they’ve lasted there for tens of thousands of years, I’m guessing five more months won’t make a difference.
Through the winter, DMNS will continue to update the fascinating Snowmass Village Ice Age Excavation page on its website. Reading the daily updates over the past couple weeks has been such a kick, as they describe in detail — with videos and photos — everything that’s been found at the excavation site, which is closed to the public.
At today’s event, Snowmass Village handed out some “Excavation FAQ’s” which answered a lot of my questions about the dig. I hope marketing officials will put the entire four-page document online, and update the FAQs as time goes on, because the behind-the-scenes information utterly scintillating.
For example, I didn’t understand who owned the land and and the fossils. I learned that the Ziegler family sold the 12-acre lake to the Snowmass Water & Sanitation District (SWSD) in 2007; the sale included the reservoir only and an easement to cross the property, but no land, according to Kit Hamby, director of SWSD. While SWSD owns the reservoir, the fossils found at the reservoir are under the jurisdiction of the State of Colorado, because SWSD is a political subdivision of the state. According to law, the “state of Colorado reserves to itself all historical, prehistorical and archaeological resources in all lands, rivers, lakes, reservoirs…” When the fossils were discovered, SWSD immediately contacted DMNS, one of two State-approved repositories for fossils.
Based on the thousands of people who showed up to look at some “old bones” today in Snowmass Village, there is obviously interest in the fossils among the local community, and surely among future visitors to the ski area. DMNS has agreed to at least prepare a cast of one of the unearthed animals for the town, and DMNS scientists will also lend their vast expertise to help communicate the science behind the fossil ecosystem preserved in the reservoir in some semblance of a to-be-determined display.
My wish is that Snowmass Village indeed puts together a local exhibit and hands-on learning area for kids to capitalize on this awesome find, just a few miles from the ski slopes. Snowmass is already an amazing resort for families — in both the summer and the winter — and its new status as one of Colorado’s most important paleontological dig sites just makes the resort even more unique and inviting to visitors of all ages.
In the meantime, that bulldozer operator who had the wherewithal to stop digging and alert someone once he realized he might have struck something important with his blade … I really hope he got a raise.