|We had a nice breakfast this morning before heading to Hot Springs to visit the Mammoth Site. It was a beautiful day with white puffy clouds and a nice breeze. We stopped for a few minutes at Prairie City to check out the prairie dogs. I know they are a pain and destructive to boot, but oh my, they are cute. A couple of miles later we encountered a small herd of buffalo off to our left and had to wait a minute or two for 5 or 6 to cross the road in front of us. I'm glad Gary & Lynne got to see them without going on a search for them in the park. Gary took a couple of nice pics.
We arrived at the Mammoth Site, the world's largest mammoth research facility, visitor's center just in time to purchase our tickets, watch a short introductory film and hook up with our small guided tour group.
The story of the Mammoth Site is quite interesting. In 1974 a local developer began a housing project here with a bit of land excavation. Some unusual bones and tusks turned up unexpectedly. The developer's son was a student at Chadron State College across the border in Nebraska. Apparently the student mentioned the find to one of his professors there. Before long, the cat was out of the bag, the housing project abandoned and a dig at the sinkhole was underway.
We learned that this sinkhole formed approximately 26,000 years ago when a cavern in the Minnelusa limestone collapsed. The collapse caused a vertical shaft called a breccia (BREH-chee-uh) pipe to form. The ground surface of Spearfish Shale, a rock strata, also caved in. This opened a sixty-five foot deep 120 X 150 foot sinkhole.
Enticed by the warm water and pond vegetation, the mammoths entered the pond to eat, drink or bathe and then could not escape. The mammoths were unable to find a foothold to scale the steep shale banks. Trapped in the pit, the mammoths ultimately died of starvation, exhaustion, or drowning.
The watering hole, active for about 350-700 years, slowly filled with layers of drying silt, sediments, and dying mammoths. The mud, which had aided in trapping the mammoths, now entombed and preserved the mammoth remains.
Eventually the sinkhole filled, and the artesian spring diverted to the lower elevation of Fall River, as the river cut deeper in the valley floor. Over thousands of years, the "hardened mud plug" inside the dried-up pond has remained stable. The surrounding dirt, the soft red Spearfish shale, ultimately eroded, leaving the sinkhole a hill.
A wonderful building with viewing platforms was constructed around the sinkhole. In this way, paleontologists could continue their work unimpeded by the elements, and luckily for us, the general public can step inside to see the fossils uncovered to date.
This site gives you a real feel for what the Great Plains must have been like some 26,000 years ago. More than 55 Wooly and Columbian mammoths have been uncovered here as well as over 85 other species of associated Ice Age fauna. What makes this particular bone bed so special is that the fossils lie in-situ. The mammoths died around a spring fed pond, and then were preserved intact. No scavengers dragged bones away and no water erosion carried scattered carcasses downstream. Supposedly this is the largest concentration in the world of mammoths still in their deathbeds, untouched.
There are different stop points, where we listened (with telephone receivers) to the tour guide point out what we are actually looking at. When the tour was over, we retraced our steps, took photos & asked questions. There were many Earthwatch volunteers working today making it fun to watch their progress.
I enjoyed strolling up to the higher points and looking down on the Wooly and Columbian mammoth remains, trying to imagine things such as what did they sound and smell like (loud and foul I should think.) As the pictures show, the researchers are doing an impeccable job of patiently sweeping away the sediment from the bones. You can truly imagine an enormous, breathing, flesh and blood behemoth.
We visited this site in 2007 and weren't disappointed with our visit here again today. With it's hands-on exhibits, walk-in mammoth bone hut, life-sized mammoth replicas and free "sandbox scientist" area for kids, it's an informative, interesting place to spend a few hours here in the beautiful Black Hills!