Snowmass site mother lode of Ice Age megafauna fossils

Gould Construction Superintendent and Rifle resident Kent Olson, left, and Gould worker Jesse Steele of Palisade discuss mastodon fossils being unearthed at a Snowmass Village excavation site. Steele’s Oct. 14 discovery of mammoth bones at the site kicked off weeks of fossil discoveries, and he and Olson have been heavily involved in the digging for additional fossils.


Why it’s important

Some of the reasons scientists are gushing over the discoveries being made at Snowmass Village include:

• Previously, only three mastodons and four giant ground sloths had been discovered in Colorado. The Snowmass site yielded a Jefferson’s ground sloth, the first ever found in Colorado.

• There have been 103 previous mammoth discoveries in the state, but Snowmass is the only place in Colorado, and one of few places in North America, where mammoths and mastodons have been in the same location. Also, the mammoth found Oct. 14 appears to be the most complete mammoth discovered at high elevation in Colorado, with about 60 percent of its bones recovered.

• The Snowmass site, at 8,870 feet, also is the highest place where mastodons and giant ground sloths have been found in the state.

• Scientist Kirk Johnson said the site also is important for having yielded so many bones (more than 200), for the quality of bone preservation, for the span of time the fossils represent, and for how much information the site may yield about Ice Age ecosystems in the Rockies.

— Source: Denver Museum of Nature & ScienceThe following are some key dates in the search for fossils at the Snowmass Village excavation site:

Oct. 14: Gould Construction Co. employee Jesse Steele discovers bones from what later are determined to be a juvenile female Columbian mammoth.

Oct. 27: Gould project supervisor Kent Olson discovers a mastodon fossil.

Oct. 29: Denver Museum of Nature & Science scientist Steve Holen confirms the discovery of at least three mastodons.

Nov. 3: Crews find what is believed to be a mastodon skull.

Nov. 4: In what the museum considered the most significant day at the dig site to that point, remains of a giant ground sloth and a small Ice Age deer are found, along with a tooth and leg bone from two more mastodons.

Nov. 6: Crews uncover the skull and horns of a gigantic Ice Age bison. The horns’ span is more than 6 feet, and the animal is believed to have been twice as large as modern bison. Museum curator Kirk Johnson said in a news release, “I’m trying to think of a cooler fossil that I’ve ever seen in my life,” and he called it the iconic fossil discovery to date at the site. Based on previous finds elsewhere involving the same animal, the find suggests the site contains fossils from a range of ages, increasing its scientific significance.

Nov 8: A second Columbian mammoth is found.

Nov. 11: A well-preserved sloth tooth is found, and radiocarbon dating of wood found next to a mastodon indicates it was in a layer of silt more than 43,500 years old.

SNOWMASS VILLAGE — In the world of paleontology, scientists describe extraordinarily rich fossil sites with a German word, “lagerstatten.”

It’s a plural reference to storage places, and Kirk Johnson of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science loosely translates it as referring to a paleontological lode of gold.

“Every paleontologist in his life wants to find a lagerstatten,” Johnson, the museum’s chief curator and vice president of research and collections, told visitors to a muddy, snowy site of a future reservoir in Snowmass Village on Thursday.

Then Johnson paused and looked around him with a grin, until his visitors joined in laughing at his great fortune.

“Life is good, you know?” he said finally, to even more laughter.

Over the past month, life also has turned somewhat upside down, like the dirt in this excavation site, for museum personnel, for Snowmass Village and for the Snowmass Water & Sanitation District, which is building the reservoir. When Gould Construction worker Jesse Steele of Palisade uncovered some mammoth bones Oct. 14, it turned out to be just the start of a frenzy of discovery that has produced hundreds of bones of mammoths, mastodons, a giant sloth, bison and other Ice Age species.

Suddenly, Johnson said, Snowmass is home to a world-class fossil site. It already has drawn scientists and museum personnel by the dozens, not to mention hordes of visitors, and the discoveries have the community’s residents and leaders thinking about the long-term marketing opportunities.

The discoveries also have turned water and sewer district employees into tour guides and overnight fossil experts who have gamely accepted their sudden role of responsibility involving a major fossil site. At the same time, it has put the district in the delicate position of trying to embrace this new claim to fame for Snowmass Village while continuing to forge ahead with building a reservoir that will ultimately bury the dig site in order to meet the town’s water needs.


For district manager Kit Hamby, the agency’s project to enlarge what had been a private reservoir took a sudden and dramatic turn as soon as he heard from other project personnel about what Steele had found.

“They gave me a call. They said, ‘You need to come up here and see this,’ ” he recalled.

It quickly became apparent to Hamby that the district had an unusual discovery on its hands, and he contacted the museum. Within a week and a half, the district board had agreed to donate the fossils being discovered to the museum, and a few days later museum staff were on the scene, excavating specimens for preservation, study and display.

Almost daily, major discoveries followed.

“We started digging around here, and bones started poking out everywhere,” Johnson said.

He said he essentially has taken up residence in the Roaring Fork Valley to focus on the dig.

“I just cleared my calendar and moved to Snowmass,” he said.

And it wasn’t just Johnson.

“Basically, we brought the museum to Snowmass. I had 40 people up here,” he said.

He said leading experts in subjects such as the Ice Age, sloths and mammoths also quickly traveled from elsewhere to get to the Snowmass dig site.

Crews had been “digging furiously,” Johnson said, as they prepared to wrap up their work for the season before winter settles in. The museum was working this weekend on shutting down its field operations, but it hopes to make arrangements with the water and sewer district to do more work next year.

Already, museum scientists are stunned by what they’ve been finding at the site.

“The museum is just over the moon. To be involved in a site like this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Johnson said.

The site is yielding a diversity of fossil treasures from a range of time periods, from perhaps 12,000 years ago to anywhere from 40,000 to 120,000 years ago. While they technically qualify as fossils due to their age, the findings are actually bones well preserved in peat and silt, including tusks and teeth that contain numerous clues about the animals to which they belonged.

Along with the fossils, scientists are finding seeds, pollen, cones, leaves, insects, snails, and logs as large as 3 feet in diameter with easily seen growth rings. Such findings will provide additional information about a range of high-altitude Ice Age ecosystems that existed in the Rockies over the millennia.

Although none has been found yet, scientists continue to look eagerly for possible signs of human life in the reservoir earth. Such signs would add important evidence to the ongoing debate over just when humans arrived in North America.

Johnson said the site has preserved a record of the Rockies that’s hard to find because it mostly has eroded away.

The range of time periods represented results from the fact the site was an ancient lake. While typically such lakes quickly fill in with debris from above, in this case the lake bed is unusually located near a hilltop. That allowed it to fill slowly over tens of thousands of years and preserve a range of animals whose remains sank to the lake bottom.

Often, Johnson said, scientists will travel to places such as Greenland to seek answers to questions about Ice Age megafauna in the Rockies. Now, scientists are getting answers in Snowmass Village.


Meanwhile, another question remains the elephant, or maybe the mastodon, in the back of the room: What about the reservoir?

Hamby said the water and sanitation district board on Nov. 22 will be considering how it might accommodate further museum work while pursuing the district’s goal of building a dam next year, and filling the reservoir by next fall.

Hamby said the museum also would need to figure out how to fund its excavation work; last week, potential donors toured the site. But as to the question of keeping with the existing schedule for reservoir construction, Hamby said that if the town faces dry conditions, the district could need the reservoir as soon as next winter to help meet water needs.

District and museum officials praise their working relationship to date. Johnson’s immediate interest is just being able to return next year, as the discoveries to date lead him to believe there are a lot more to be made.

“We’re getting a pretty nice suite of animals, and we’ve just started,” he said.

He understands the town’s need for more water, and he said usually fossil sites aren’t fully excavated, but work instead concludes at the point of diminishing returns.

Besides, he said, a lake won’t harm underlying fossils that would be protected by a layer of clay. It might be possible to return to Snowmass Village at a point when the reservoir no longer is needed, and some archaeologists argue that holding off on excavations only means better techniques will be available once the work begins, Johnson said.

While the dig site may be underwater a year from now, the town may be trading on the site’s importance for a long time to come. The museum plans to make fossil replicas to be locally displayed. Already, the water and sewer district hosted some 3,500 visitors who have wanted to see bones or visit the site. Bones have been shown to thousands of local students. And some community members are discussing the degree to which the fossil discoveries might help make this ski and snowboarding attraction more of a year-round resort.

Water and sewer district employee Debbie Shore is one of those holding out such hopes.

“We’ve seen this town struggle for business the whole year-round the whole time I’ve been here,” the 32-year resident said.

Already, the marketing slogan “I dig Snowmass” is making its way onto stickers. And the possible commercial value of the fossil attraction may have been exemplified when Wisconsin resident Don Schmidt joined his wife, Dianne, in stopping in Shore’s office to get a tour of the site while they were in the area. Schmidt suggested he might have been willing to pay money for the privilege.

“This is really cool … I just can’t believe that they’re allowing people to do this, especially for free,” he said.


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