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GLEN CANYON NATIONAL RECREATION AREA — There’s been a mammoth discovery near Lake Powell. At a secret location, bones from an elephant-like Columbian mammoth have been quietly excavated.
Scientists say the discovery may shed light on why the giant animals went extinct.
Before leading a reporter to the site of his discovery, Big Water resident David Rankin extracted a promise to keep the location secret and to avoid taking pictures that might reveal the surrounding geologic features.
“The concern,” Rankin explained, “is that we don’t want people going out there and collecting things to bring home that could have some scientific value to them.”
On arrival at the site, the reason for his concern became clear. Rankin’s find is now protected in burlap and plaster “jackets” applied last fall by a team of volunteers from the Natural History Museum of Utah. Until the huge jackets are hauled away, presumably by helicopter, the bones are vulnerable to collectors or vandals.
Rankin is not a professional paleontologist, but he has an eye for geology. So two years ago, when he spotted an ancient horse tooth sticking out of a slope, he realized it was from the Pleistocene era tens of thousands of years ago.
“There were horses in North America,” Rankin said. “There were camels living here. There were giant sloths. There were saber-tooth cats.”
Just after spotting the horse tooth, Rankin noticed another piece of bone. A mammoth tooth.
“The tooth was very eroded so it took me a minute to figure out what I was looking at,” Rankin said. “But once it dawned on me, it was a very spectacular moment. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life.”
“This is very, very exciting,” said Randall Irmis, curator of paleontology at the Natural History Museum of Utah. He said the bones discovered by Rankin and the volunteer excavators are almost certainly a Columbian mammoth, the same species represented by a huge skeleton on display at the museum.
“That’s a relative of today’s elephants,” Irmis said, “and it’s closely related to the woolly mammoth but probably wasn’t nearly as furry.”
The museum’s collections manager, Carrie Levitt-Bussian, led the team of volunteers who carefully teased bones — and pieces of bone — from the discovery site.
“This preservation was very unique,” Levitt-Bussian said, “because it was kind of like shredded wheat, in some parts. It was very, very fragile.”
They didn’t recover a complete skeleton like the one in the museum. They found mostly bits and pieces.
“We have parts of three tusks, which are kind of neat,” Levitt-Bussian said. “It was kind of a funny story where I had one volunteer working on one side of the quarry and David (Rankin) working on the other side of the quarry. They were each working on a tusk part. And just before lunch, they found that they were connected. It was a really, really big tusk.”
Even today, two years after his initial discovery, Rankin can spot bits of bone right at the surface of the ground.
“There’s still bone preserved in the hill coming out of the hill right here,” Rankin said. “The preservation here is pretty amazing. You can see the texture of the bone.”
It’s not a big surprise to find mammoths in Utah. Several have been found in other parts of the state. But what impresses the experts in this case is that the discovery pushes back the timetable for mammoths by many thousands of years.
“This site is really significant,” Rankin said, “because it gives us a snapshot much further into the past.”
The scientists are keeping their age estimate secret for now until they publish a peer-reviewed analysis. But Irmis says if it shows that mammoths thrived in a warmer, wetter era, it may help answer on one of the great scientific questions: What killed off the mammoths: climate change or humans?
“One of the things we’re really interested in as paleontologists,” Irmis said, “is how did ecosystems and animals change as the climate oscillated between cold and dry and hot and wet,” Irmis said. “If they were very happy during that time (of earlier climate change) then it seems to suggest that they can hack it, so to speak.”
The plan is for further studies as soon as the plaster-jacketed bones can be transported to the museum.
“Sometime this summer, hopefully,” Levitt-Bussian said.