The Snowmass Discovery: A Story of Mammoth Proportions

In 2010, in the town of Snowmass, Colo., while working on a reservoir, a bulldozer operator discovered uncovered fossil bones that turned out to belong to a young female mammoth. When all was said and done, more than 5,400 bones of mammoths, mastodons and other ice age animals were discovered at the site.

And, the town got its reservoir.

During that initial discovery, however, immediate attention was needed.

Which is why Kirk Johnson, the sant director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., was called.

When he got to Snowmass, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“The excavation and research was incredible,” he said. “As a scientist, these kinds of opportunities only come around once or twice in a career, and that’s only if you’re lucky.”

Ian Miller, a paleontologist at the museum, later joined Johnson at the site.

He was overwhelmed.

“Many scientists never get the chance to be a part of something this big and scientifically important,” added Johnson.

Image Caption

These paintings of the Ziegler Reservoir, by Jan Vriesen, shows what the area looked like 130,000 and 60,000 years ago. The formation of the lake basin occurred after a glacier spilled out of the Snowmass Creek Valley. The Ziegler Reservoir was dominated by mammoth, camels and deer 60,000 to 45,000 years ago.

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In 2010, in the town of Snowmass, Colo., while working on a reservoir, a bulldozer operator discovered uncovered fossil bones that turned out to belong to a young female mammoth. When all was said and done, more than 5,400 bones of mammoths, mastodons and other ice age animals were discovered at the site.

And, the town got its reservoir.

During that initial discovery, however, immediate attention was needed.

Which is why Kirk Johnson, the sant director of the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington D.C., was called.

When he got to Snowmass, he couldn’t believe what he saw.

“The excavation and research was incredible,” he said. “As a scientist, these kinds of opportunities only come around once or twice in a career, and that’s only if you’re lucky.”

Ian Miller, a paleontologist at the museum, later joined Johnson at the site.

He was overwhelmed.

“Many scientists never get the chance to be a part of something this big and scientifically important,” added Johnson.

And telling this story, with this scientific importance, as adeptly and creatively as they did, is why both men were nominated and ultimately given AAPG’s 2016 Geosciences in the Media Award.

Winter is Coming

“In the beginning,” Johnson said, “during the fall 2010 portion of the dig, there was a lot of confusion. The developers, the excavating firm, and us were all competing against the coming winter. Things were a flurry.”

How volatile was it?

“For the first week, we found a new species of giant animal in the ancient lake every single day.”

Once the excavation temporarily closed in 2010 due to snow, Johnson and Miller spent seven months preparing for the “big dig” in the spring and summer of 2011.

“It is highly unusual to get a crystal clear glimpse of this time period at our latitude and at high elevation,” said Johnson, “because the best records of climate and past ecosystems from the interglacial periods come from either deep lakes or ice cores. We have few big lakes at our latitude that were around when the Snowmass fossils were first forming, and only the polar ice caps offer long-term records of climate.”

Additionally, places of high elevation are not where fossils form. Up in the mountains, for instance, erosion is the main process and streams and rivers bring sediment to the lower elevations.

“As a result,” Johnson continued, “your best shot to find fossils of this time period is in the flat plains east of the Rocky Mountains.”

Which is why, he said again, Snowmass was such a big deal.

“It’s a long term record of animals, big and small, it spanned nearly 100,000 years and is incredibly complete in terms of sediment deposited during that time window.”

Communicating the Science

It was an amazing, fruitful time. The Geosciences in the Media Award, though, was awarded not for the find as much as for what happened next.

Once the dig was completed, it was featured on a NOVA documentary called “Ice Age Death Trap” (Johnson admitted that things never got that dangerous) and a book, “Digging Snowmastodon: Discovering an Ice Age World in the Colorado Rockies,” was written.

“Anytime something spectacular happens that really does inspire wonder, it becomes an amazing tool for us to communicate science. The Snowmass discovery was that and more,” said Johnson.

“The decision to write the book happened organically,” said Miller. “Kirk had written such books before and understood the value of telling such a story in a fun, exciting and personal way. As a result, we took copious notes through the project, took tons of pictures and considered the story arc as the actual story played out.”

They cranked out the first draft in 24 days.

“We had a few months to catch up on sleep,” said Miller, alluding to the 18-plus hours a day they had been working towards the end of the dig.

A New Benchmark

“We accomplished what we had set out to do: clear all the fossils from the footprint site of the dam that was going to impound the slightly expanded and new lake. At the end of the day, it was a win-win-win. The town of Snowmass Village got its reservoir, the construction team finished on time, the museum rescued all the fossils from the footprint of the dam, and the scientists collected unprecedented data.”

Considering the glimpse Snowmastodon gave scientists, he called the project “a new benchmark for understanding climate change in the American West.”

“We were able to link changes in the Snowmass region to global changes we see in the ice cores from Greenland. This means that when it’s warming and cooling in Greenland, it’s also warming and cooling in Snowmass, and, as it turns out, also drying and wetting (in other words, more or less rain) – further confirmation that the climate is a global system. We know that the one constant about climate is that it’s always changing – nobody can argue with that. The questions really revolve around how fast does it change, how much can it change, what are the consequences of those changes and is it changing today?”

Creating a Better World

For both men, personally, the experience left its mark.

“Working with National Geographic and NOVA really changed all our lives,” Miller said, “both of us have had multiple new opportunities through these organizations to partner on projects since the Snowmass dig. Kirk worked with NOVA to produce ‘Making North America,’ a three-hour special that premiered in November 2015.”

Receiving this award from AAPG is further validation.

“It is a gift to have AAPG, our fellow earth and engineering scientists, recognize our efforts in communicating science,” said Johnson. “The currency of natural history museums is wonder and inspiration. Unlike elementary and high school, it’s your choice if you want to come to a museum. As a result, anytime something spectacular happens that really does inspire wonder, it becomes an amazing tool for us to communicate science.”

But it’s more than that.

“We all hope to create a better world and I think that we can all agree that science helps us get there. Fortunately, for us as paleontologists, fossils are just one of the best tools to engage all our public audiences in science exploration. The Snowmass discovery was that and more,” Johnson continued.

Johnson laughed when asked if there was more he wishes he could have accomplished at Snowmass.

“Had the dig gone longer, the two of us would likely have keeled over!”

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