Denver Museum of Nature & Science Excavation Crews Unearth a Spectacular Bison Skull and Horns at the Snowmass Village Fossil Dig Site

Ice Age Animal was Twice as Large as Modern Bison

Denver Museum of Nature & Science Field Report from Snowmass Village: Sunday, November 7, 2010

Note to Reporters and Editors: Every afternoon, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science will issue an update about the fossil excavation taking place at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass Village, Colorado. In addition to this e-mail, watch for another e-mail with links to the still images shot today, and a third e-mail that will allow you to download video.   

Saturday, November 6, Afternoon: On Saturday afternoon, Denver Museum of Nature & Science excavation crews uncovered one of the most spectacular discoveries yet at the Ice Age fossil dig site near Snowmass Village -- the skull and horns of a gigantic Ice Age bison.

As a Gould construction bulldozer carefully moved muddy silt near the bottom of the reservoir site, Dr. Ian Miller, the Museum's curator of paleontology and chair of the Earth Science Department, spotted an extremely large bison horn core exposed by the heavy machine operator. The horn was so large Miller initially mistook it for a mammoth or mastodon tusk.

The bulldozer made one more careful pass through the area and exposed a second horn core, which led scientists to the spot where a gigantic bison skull was discovered. When both horns were repositioned with the skull, the span of the horns was greater than six feet.

"I'm trying to think of a cooler fossil that I've ever seen in my life," said Dr. Kirk Johnson, the Museum's chief curator and vice president of Research and Collections. "This is the iconic fossil recovered thus far in the excavation."

The size of the skull and horns indicates the Ice Age animal was twice as large as modern bison. Scientific experts on the site hotly debated the age and identification of the specimen. Similar species found elsewhere in the western United States have indicated these extremely large bison are often found in sediments as old as 30,000 to 50,000 years old. If confirmed, this suggests that the Snowmass Village site contains fossils from a range of ages, not just a single age. If this is true, it would greatly increase the scientific significance of the site, according to Johnson.

The bison skull was put into a plaster of Paris jacket in the field, then the 250 pound specimen was carried to a truck to be transported to the Museum for preparation and preservation. The plaster jacket will be removed and the fossil will be carefully washed to remove the silt and mud. Scientists will collect samples from the skull and attempt to radiocarbon date it and extract ancient DNA.

Another Ice Age bison found earlier in the week at the dig site is possibly a juvenile of the same species as this new bison. All of the Ice Age scientific experts at the site agree that making a proper identification must wait until the skull can be cleaned and compared to other specimens in museum and university collections.     

Media Availability: Dr. Ian Miller, Dr. Steve Holen and Dr. Kirk Johnson, the Museum's chief curator and Vice President of Research and Collections will be available for phone interviews late today by appointment. 

For additional information about the excavation, interview clips, video clips and still images from the site, please check the Denver Museum of Nature & Science's home page and press page.


About the Denver Museum of Nature & Science
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science is the Rocky Mountain Region's leading resource for informal science education. A variety of engaging exhibits, discussions and activities help Museum visitors celebrate and understand the natural wonders of Colorado, Earth and the universe. The Museum is located at 2001 Colorado Blvd., Denver, CO, 80205.  To learn more about the Museum, check, or call 303-370-6000.

Many of the Museum's educational programs and exhibits are made possible in part by generous funding from the citizens of the seven-county metro area through the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District.

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