In 1974 at the southwestern edge of Hot Springs, South Dakota, mammoth bones were surprisingly uncovered while bulldozing a site for construction. Excavation began immediately, and a protective building was soon erected when it became apparent that this was a massive and spectacular deposit of fossil bones, not only from mammoths, but from other fauna dating back 26,000 years. Today, as bones are uncovered, many are left in-situ for visitors to view where the animals actually died.
Mammoths are extinct elephants of North America and Eurasia which lived from about 5 million years ago up to as recently as 4000 years ago. Columbian Mammoths, the predominant species found at this South Dakota site, were as large, or larger, than African elephants of today. The other elephant species found were Woolly Mammoths, which were smaller but better adapted to the colder weather of the ice ages.
About 26,000 years ago, the roof of a limestone cave collapsed creating a sinkhole which filled with warm water (about 95° F) from an artesian spring. This natural ‘hot tub’ became a death trap for heavy mammoths (which weighed up to 10 tons) and other animals such as camels and large, prehistoric bears which slipped into the watery pit but were unable to escape. The bones of over 60 mammoths have been found so far.
Tragically, some skeletons show mammoths stretching toward the top of the sinkhole, futilely trying to escape the slippery and muddy embankments. They perished from starvation in their fatal, stretched pose. Other skeletons are found at the bottom suggesting that mammoths drowned while swimming to the other side of the sinkhole, but became exhausted while swimming and searching over and over again for escape.
Today, this site is still being actively excavated, and before removal, bones are encased in plaster ‘jackets’ (seen as white coverings) to protect them during transport to the on-site lab. As you walk through the exhibit, there are buckets and tools everywhere to support the on-going excavation. During summer months, volunteers are trained in excavation techniques and then assigned parts of the sinkhole to excavate.
This is a fascinating and eye-opening adventure for learning about extinct animals - particularly mammoths which were major characters in the animated and popular Ice Age movies; i.e. Manny (aka Manfred) and Ellie. This museum is great for kids to learn real science behind the make-believe characters. Plus, you see and learn about how paleontologists excavate fossil bones - their equipment and their methods. The Mammoth Site is a goldmine for learning, whether young or old. Highly recommended - especially for families.
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