A rare find
Mammoth discovery offers special opportunity for UI students
Kristin Tefft rolls up her sleeves and arms herself with a turkey baster and a toothbrush.
The UI junior is facing a task that requires patience and care, and may be a bit monotonous, but it is one that undoubtedly will help her résumé stand out: she’s helping to hydrate and remove calcium deposits from the skull of a woolly mammoth.
After drawing water into the baster, she methodically drizzles the liquid on top of the various ridges and crevices of a skull fragment and then follows with gentle scrubs of the brush.
“I never thought I would have the chance to clean mammoth bones, and have hands-on experience with ancient fossils,” says Tefft, a biochemistry major from Dubuque, Iowa, who volunteers at the UI Museum of Natural History.
Tefft is able to log this experience thanks to the discovery of mammoth bones in 2010 by a farmer in central Iowa. The Museum of Natural History is leading the excavation after the landowner requested the university’s assistance.
The find has led to unprecedented opportunities for UI faculty, staff, and students alike to learn more about the creatures and the environment they lived in some 14,000 years ago, and to get hands-on experience at the dig site and in the lab. Researchers believe the 100-plus bones found at the site thus far, including a tusk, a scapula, skull fragments, ribs, and leg bones, belonged to two or more mammoths. And the dig continues this spring.
Sarah Horgen, the museum’s education and outreach coordinator, says that when the landowner asked for the university’s help in uncovering the bones, the one condition she had was that the site be used as an educational resource.
“The collaboration between the landowner and the university isn’t the most common, but it’s beneficial to both parties,” says Horgen, noting that the bones still belong to the landowner. “There is a lot of scientific research happening at the site. The knowledge is not so much about the bones but what’s around them—the soils, pollens, and grains. This kind of opportunity doesn’t come around often.”
To date, more than 150 people of all ages from the UI and across the region have participated in the excavation and laboratory analysis. In fact, Horgen has fielded so many inquiries from people interested in volunteering at the dig site that she has established a waiting list.
Horgen says Tefft, who was able to apply her experience working with the bones to a final project in a zoology course, is just one of a half-dozen UI undergraduates under her supervision working on the mammoth project. Aaron Last, a junior from West Liberty, Iowa, says volunteering at the museum prompted him to switch majors.
“I originally wanted to do marine biology but after I started volunteering at the museum, I decided to pursue geology instead,” says Last, who now is on the museum staff.
The amount of work and research needed on the mammoth project kept Tefft, Last, and other museum personnel busy during the winter months when the dig site was closed. The first order of business was to finish cleaning the bones and then to stabilize others by gluing fragments together and building support structures to store them safely. The group aims to compile an inventory of the remains, with measurements and photographs of the individual bones. Other students are reviewing soil samples.
Student volunteers and staff members also have helped develop a museum exhibition on the Ice Age that will include some bones from the dig. The exhibition will be at the Old Capitol Museum through the summer.