Excavation & Research
For the past two years John and the family have kept the discovery of the mammoth relatively quiet, but they recently decided to enlist the help of UI experts to aid in the excavation. So far nearly thirty bones have been recovered, including an impressive femur, multiple ribs and vertebrae and a few toe bones and the digging has just begun.
The discovery of both large and small bones within the same area is important as it means the mammoth was buried where it died, with little bone displacement—the entire skeleton may still be in the same area. University scientists recently took images of the entire site using ground-penetrating radar to gauge how much of the mammoth still needs to be uncovered. Holmes Semken, Professor Emeritus of Geoscience, says the radar surveying went well and scientist Frank Weirich, Associate Professor of Geoscience, Civil and Environmental Engineering, is pleased with the raw data. A better picture of what lies below the earth should be forthcoming.
“The discovery of an apparently complete mammoth or at least a sizable portion of one is most unusual.” Semken states. Although mammoth bones aren’t too uncommon in this area, finding a mostly complete, largely undisturbed skeleton is extremely rare. While there are quite a few records of mammoths from Iowa, almost all are individual bones. The combination of the completeness of the skeleton and the wealth of other information available at the site could make this the most important mammoth discovery in Iowa.
“The discovery is a benefit for the Museum of Natural History because the landowner has donated the science associated with the beast. We will be able to test the bones for carbon, nitrogen and oxygen isotopes. This data will give insight into the temperature of the water the animal drank, the kinds of plants it ate, and date the time of death, probably within 50 years,” Semken adds
Researchers have also taken soil and botanical samples in order to help identify how the land looked when this mammoth roamed Iowa. This is crucial for UI scientists who are not only interested in the mammoth but also the environment that this animal lived and died in. These samples will also help place dates on when the mammoth may have lived. “We would like to know how the mammoth died but the museum scientists are most interested in how mammoths lived. The Oskaloosa specimen will provide a wealth of information” says Semken. A few bone specimens are of special interest as they show what look to be gnaw marks. UI scientists are excited about the research associated with the potential indication that the mammoth decayed and was partially consumed by ice-age carnivores before burial.
The University of Iowa and the UI Museum of Natural History are excited about educational potential of this amazing find. According to Sarah Horgen, Museum of Natural History Education Coordinator, who is managing the educational effort: “We are excited about the scientific research that will come from this site, but also about how we can use the excavation and research as an educational tool to show Iowans the natural history that is right under their feet. We have already lined up teachers and students from all levels to help with future digs and more are contacting us every day wishing to participate. I am so grateful to the landowner for making this unique opportunity possible, and thrilled about the interest from students and educators across the state.”