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Ice Age dig is a treasure of mammoth dimension

DENVER — Museum workers who spent a month of frenzied digging at a 130,000-year-old muddy lakebed near Snowmass Village are finding their Ice Age treasure even more magnificent than previously revealed.

Denver Museum of Nature & Science workers — 67 individuals — recovered more than 500 bones representing eight to 10 American mastodons, four Columbian mammoths, four Ice Age bison, two deer, Colorado's first-ever Jefferson's ground sloth, several smaller animal species and hundreds of pounds of plant material.

"Our museum is changed forever," president and chief executive officer George Sparks said. "Careers and lives are changed."

Over time, paleontologists have pieced together a picture of the recent Ice Age from isolated sites around the world — from a mammoth femur from one state to another bone from another country, and so on.

At Ziegler Reservoir in western Colorado, scientists uncovered an entire Ice Age ecosystem, spanning tens of thousands of years and marvelously preserved at an elevation of 8,874 feet, an altitude that had been mostly absent from the fossil record.

"We know almost nothing about what the Rockies were like during the Ice Age. We have our first clear window into it," museum curator Kirk Johnson said. "It is one of the most amazing finds in North America."

Scientists believe they can recover well-preserved DNA from the bones.

Johnson said the site holds answers about many different species living at the end of the last Ice Age, a time of ancient global warming. It is relevant today because "we live in a warming world right now," he said.

Scientists have recovered 15 tusks of mammoths and mastodons — one still bone white — plus two tusk tips and 14 bags of tusk fragments.

One tusk is 8 feet long. These distant ancestors of elephants were massive, with Columbian mammoths standing 12-14 feet at the shoulder and American mastodons 10 feet at the shoulder, museum curator of paleontology Ian Miller said. Both species weighed 8 to 12 tons as adults.

Ice Age dig is a treasure of mammoth dimension 11/20/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:22pm]
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