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UI leads research on Oskaloosa mammoth bone discovery

BY NATE OTJEN | SEPTEMBER 17, 2012 6:30 AM

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Thousands of years ago, mammoths roamed across what is now Iowa, and the University of Iowa now has a unique opportunity to study two sets of fossils on which excavation has recently begun.

UI students and professors are beginning to study mammoth bones from a site near Oskaloosa, Iowa.

“It keeps getting better and better,” said Sarah Horgen, the project leader for the dig and UI Museum of Natural History education coordinator.

The project is the first of its kind in terms of two full mammoths being excavated and studied by the university. The university is the lead research partner, with the UI Museum of Natural History serving as the project lead.

Landowners in Oskaloosa found the mammoth bones in 2010 while looking for berries.

The landowners took the bones to the UI, where they were studied and determined to be mammoth bones. More bones were discovered shortly after, and the landowners asked for assistance from UI officials in April to help excavate the bones. The landowner is retaining them, allowing the UI to excavate and study them.

“We have quite a large collection of mammoth bones at the university, and they are mostly teeth,” said Tiffany Adrain, the collections manager at the UI Paleontology Repository. “But we have had nothing like this before. It’s a fantastic opportunity to actually be there at the site.”

The Museum of Natural History is heading the project with the Department of Geoscience, the College of Engineering, and the Department of Anthropology also being involved with the excavation efforts. The UI is also partnering with Iowa State University, William Penn University, and the office of the State Archaeologist.

“The collaboration is impressive,” said Andrew Blodgett, a UI senior majoring in geology. “There are professors from three different universities donating their time with it.”

Blodgett has been to the site five different times and is working on measuring the bones to compare the lengths to mammoth bones in other states.

“There aren’t many sites with more than one mammoth,” he said. “The number of bones we are finding is quite irregular.”

Bones from two different mammoths have been discovered at the Oskaloosa site, and those involved in the excavation say there could possibly be more. Roughly 60 to 70 bones have been removed through the excavation. Current age estimates of the bones date the animals to be between 10,000 and 12,000 years old.

The mammoth uncovered is most likely a Columbian Mammoth — a species found as far north as Alaska and as far south as Central America. It was considered the biggest species and had the longest tusks of the mammoths.

“What’s really great is that the landowner is letting us do this,” Arthur Bettis, a UI geoscience professor, said. “It’s a great opportunity to work with lots of people who you don’t usually get to work with.”

Blodgett said the site is small and can only hold about ten people maximum at a given time.

“It’s a wide area but it’s in a trench,” he said. “The bottom is flooded with water.”

This makes the excavation difficult for the volunteers.

Horgen leads groups of volunteers at the site who are primarily students and professors from universities across the state. Volunteers usually visit the site on weekends to excavate. Horgen currently has a waiting list of students and professors who want to help with the excavation.

Horgen wants to use this site as an educational tool for the volunteers.

“We have had an overwhelming response for people to participate,” she said, adding that they are working their way through the waiting list.

University officials don’t have a set time frame for the completion of the project but say its educational aspect has unlimited potential.

“We don’t know how large the area is,” Horgen said. “… Only time will tell with that.”


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