Fossils!

A 140K years ago, a woolly mammoth-like this one, went for a drink. The pond he came to was actually a deep sinkhole with slick sides of Spearfish shale. The mammoth slipped in, but could not climb out. Displayed at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota this skeleton was found on a farm in Wisconsin. (This mammoth skeleton is from a farm in Wisconsin, not from this site.)

October 3 – 4, 2020.

We were on our way to look at some fossils in Utah and Colorado but then after consulting the map we realized there were lots of fossils along the way. We decided to make it a fossil journey stopping also at sites in South Dakota and Nebraska.

The Mammoth Site

In 1974 a piece of land was being prepared for a housing development in Hot Springs, SD when the blade of the heavy equipment doing the grading struck something that gleamed white in the sunlight. On closer inspection, a tusk about seven feet long was found, along with other bones.

The owner of the land, Phil Anderson, connected with Dr. Larry Agenbroad from Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska. Anderson halted the development while a crew excavated the site. An unprecedented amount of mammoth fossils were uncovered.

Anderson realized that his 14 acres of land slated for the housing development was more valuable for scientific study so he donated the land to a nonprofit, The Mammoth Site.

The site is now a museum and active dig site with visiting students and scientists from all over the world.

The indoor dig site. So far skeletons of 61 mammoths have been found here. The red Spearfish shale can be seen clearly around the edge of the dig. The water level in the sinkhole reached up to the height of the ceiling.

The hole is full of partially excavated bones. These are actual bones, naturally preserved.

Most of the mammoths at this site are Woolly Mammoths, but three Columbian mammoths have also been found. The oldest and most complete Columbian skeleton belongs to “Napoleon”.

Napoleon’s skull, with tusks still attached. His teeth show that he was 47 years old when he died.

Mammoth tusks everywhere. A total of 122 tusks have been discovered so far, yielding a count of 61 individuals.

Another mammoth skeleton.

Many other mammals have been found at the site. Here is a short-faced bear.

Skull of a short-faced bear.

No mammoth bone houses were found here, but there is evidence in eastern Europe that mammoth bone homes like this were built in pre-historic times.

This is a replica of Lyuba, a mummified woolly mammoth who died within 35 days of her birth almost 42,000 years ago. The Russian reindeer breeder who found her thought it would be bad luck to touch her. He traveled 150 miles to contact the authorities. She was missing when they arrived. She had been taken by someone who swapped her to a local shop keeper for two snowmobiles.

World Fossil Finder Museum

Just a short drive from The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs we found the World Fossil Finder Museum. This museum exhibits fossils from all over the world. Here we took a short docent-led tour through the museum.

This Tylosaur, “Debbie Sue”, was a South Dakota native 85 million years ago, when the state was underwater. She is the most complete tylosaur skeleton ever found, with 44% of her bones recovered. Her skull was surprisingly complete. A lot can happen to a big fragile skull over time. And there is evidence that tylos used their heads a battering rams to stun their prey before swallowing it whole.

Sometimes I think I should give my poor feet a break and drop a few pounds. But at least they don’t have to hold up 50 tons of Camarasaur flesh as this foot did. There are a lot of regional traces of these large herbivores, which lived during the Jurassic Era about 150 million years ago.

Gavial (fish-eating) Crocodile skull from the Jurassic Era. This croc species has survived into the modern age, existing 750 times longer than homo sapiens.

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

While we were at The Mammoth Site we watched a short video about other dig sites and fossil discoveries in the region. One, Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, part of the National Park system was in Nebraska, not too far off our path to Utah.

Twenty million years ago these two hills were at the bottom of a large watering hole frequented by megafauna. Today they are part of the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in Nebraska. The bones left behind tell us that this Miocene pond was frequented by many mammals as it dried out. A look at their reconstructed remains might make you glad you didn’t have to compete with them for water.

Diorama at Agate Fossil Beds. On the left two hoofed carrion-eating enteledonts try to scavenge the body of a chalicothere. But first, they must deal with a group of the three-toed chalicotheres. Bones of a herd of grazing pony-sized rhinos, who probably starved to death, already litter the bottom of the watering hole.

Another view of the diorama. In the foreground, a bear-dog approaches one of the enteledonts. Neither a bear nor a dog, this species of mammal survived for about 18 million years.

Many of these Daemonelix fossils were found at the Agate site. This one has been partially excavated and preserved. Scientists wondered what in the world could leave such a strangely shaped fossil behind. The prevailing theory was a spiraling tree root until someone accidentally dropped a hammer at the base of one breaking it open. Inside was a fossilized Paleocastor or burrowing rodent.

The “Bone” cabin at Agate. It was built by rancher James Cook in the 1880s. James had an avid interest in fossils and found the fossil bed on the hills in the distance. He also found the Daemonelixes about a mile west of here. His son, Harold, shared his interest, encouraging scientists to come to study the finds. The cabin was used in the 1910s and 20s by scientists excavating the fossil beds.

And, of course Duwan had to get a few pics of wildlife as we strolled the grounds at Agate. Here is a White-crowned Sparrow near the “Bone” cabin.

And some Pine Siskins.

Dozens of Pine Siskins lit together on a bush. This is just a detail.

5 thoughts on “Fossils!

  1. You’re speaking my language here, Duwan. I have a scene in my upcoming prehistoric fiction where a proto-gazelle is trapped in quicksand and then killed by a cousin to Sabertooth. That was the feral world back then, wasn’t it.

    I love looking at fossils, imagining the world that was.

    • I was thinking about you as I read this post, Jacqui! Right up your alley! 🙂

    • Duwan said:

      It is so amazing that these fossil exist so we can learn a bit about and imagine what it was like when these prehistoric animals roamed about.

      So glad you enjoyed the post!

  2. Fascinating post! You sure stumbled across a lot of bones and fossils on your way back! 🙂

    • Duwan said:

      Yes – and more to come. Amazing how many places there are to find fossils.

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