Snowmastodon Collections Update

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Those who tuned in February 1 to watch the NOVA/National Geographic special Ice Age Death Trap are familiar with the 10-week sprint led by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science to excavate Ziegler Reservoir, an ancient lake bed full of pristine bones, invertebrates, and plant material ranging from 45,000-150,000 years old. The fast-paced fossil dig was only the first step in a marathon of scientific inquiry now supported by this exquisite fossil collection.

Mastodon Vert 

Generally, the pristine preservation of the fossils makes preparing the Snowmass collection for research and exhibition an easy job. Unlike the classic Cretaceous T-Rex remains, the Ice Age Snowmass bones are not permineralized.  The bones are still considered fossils because they are evidence of ancient life, but the bone material was not completely replaced by rock-forming minerals. Instead, the bones are slightly mineralized, leaving much of the original bone material behind. The preservation excites scientists like Kirk Hansen, an Assistant Professor at the University of Colorado at Denver who is currently sampling the bones with the hope of detecting proteins preserved in the bone matrix.


The museum uses more than 6,500 square feet of space to house the remnants of the ancient Ice-Age ecosystem. Introducing over 5,500 bones transformed the DMNS Earth Sciences Collections space into a haven for Pleistocene puzzle solvers eager to reassemble the story behind the bones. These puzzle solvers include a strong team of Paleo Lab volunteers and preparators  so skilled they can reconstruct a complete mastodon rib longer than your average German shepherd from 25 shards of bone.


The bones arrived from the field "pickled" by the water-logged sediments of the lake and required careful monitoring for mold growth and drying damage. Conservation staff placed each bone in a plastic bag to reduce dramatic changes in relative humidity that can result in cracking and mold growth on the fossil. Nearly 95% of the collection, from Mastodon femurs to the delicate horns of Bison latifronsare now dry within six months of the dig's end.

It is now the primary focus of DMNS collections staff and volunteers to track the data and condition of the fossils.  We work daily to group specimens by species and bone type, photograph the collection, and double check field measurements associated with each bone to ensure they are recorded and accurate. New discoveries are made daily, including a new carnivore vertebra recently found by Carol Lucking, the Earth Sciences Assistant Collections Manager.  As more bones wait to be rediscovered, please check back and see what stories from the Ice Age come to light.

For more information on the Snowmastodon Project, check out the project updates online, and look for the release of Digging Snowmastodon on March 20, 2012, a book by Kirk Johnson and Ian Miller detailing the discovery and excavation of the Snowmass Village site.


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