Mammoth On The Move: Rare, Nearly-Intact Skeleton Heads To Dallas
For tens of thousands of years, the skeleton of a giant mammoth lay in one place: a gravel pit about 50 miles south of Dallas.
A few months ago, the bones were unearthed — and now they're on the move. Paleontologists are carefully packing them up, preparing them to travel to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, in Dallas.
A Gravel Pit Reveals Its Secret
Ethan Beasley, along with his uncle Marty McEwen, discovered the skeleton last May. It was a typical day at the family's sand and gravel company in Ellis County, Texas — until McEwen hit something hard with the excavator. Beasley jumped down from his dump truck and brushed the brown dirt off a few feet of mammoth tusk.
"We uncovered the end down toward the head," he remembers. "For a long time we were just standing there, looking at it, really didn't know what to do."
They called a paleontologist from nearby Navarro College and for the next few months, a small team of volunteers worked to remove layers of sediment from the ancient beast — a Columbian mammoth, a relative of the living elephant, estimated to be 20,000 to 40,000 years old.
During the dig, Beasley became a sort of town crier, updating locals on progress.
"You go through town, people ... they call it the elephant or dinosaur or something," he says. "They're like, 'Ya'll dug it up? How's it going?' "
Now, the digging is completed. Next step: the move.
For weeks, Perot Museum paleontologist Ron Tykoski has been carefully wrapping the vertebrae, neck, rib and shoulder bones of the animal in toilet paper, wet plaster strips and burlap.
The result is a massive white bundle that weighs a thousand pounds. Eight people work together to flip it, so the other side can be wrapped up as well. Right now, the bones rest on two-by-fours; soon, they'll be in a museum.
Insight Into An Extinction
Columbian mammoths have been found across the U.S. before, as well as in other locations in Texas.
"There were a lot of these animals here," Tykoski says. "They must have loved it around here ... You find their remains all across parts of southern North America."
But this discovery stands out because the skeleton is nearly complete. Usually, says paleontologist Paul Sereno, bones have been scavenged by animals or washed away.
This skeleton also has both tusks, which measure more than 7 feet long. Scientists expect the tusks, in particular, will be a rich source of information.
"The tusk will give you all sorts of details about the animal," says Sereno, who teaches at the University at Chicago. "If you section that, you'll be able to not only tell something about the age of the animal but also about climate variation, literally year by year, as the animal grew that tusk."
Sereno says the Columbian mammoth can help us understand how quickly a species can go from being at the top of the food chain to the bottom of a gravel pit.
"The idea of climate change, the idea of a changing Earth is happening before us. You look at an animal like this and say, as little as 9,000 years ago there were long-tusked mammoths wandering around Texas — pretty amazing," he says.
Imagine a herd of elephant-sized creatures grazing in the fields south of Dallas, alongside short-faced bears and saber-toothed cats.
"And then all of a sudden, around 10,000 years ago, they were gone in a flash," says the Perot Museum's Tykoski.
The next step is to get the bones to the Perot Museum's lab in Dallas, carefully clean them and pump them full of glue for preservation.
Museum officials still have to give the mammoth a name and decide whether to put it on display. There's already one Texan mammoth in the collection, but he may be willing to show some Southern hospitality and scoot over for a friend.
Copyright 2014 KERA