July 15, 2013

Researchers play 'pick up sticks' with mammoth bones

The Oskaloosa Herald

OSKALOOSA — Workers at the Mammoth dig site in rural Mahaska County were playing a game of “pick up sticks” Saturday morning, except the sticks were mammoth bones.

A group from the Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids as well as faculty from William Penn University and Indian Hills Community College, and Iowa State University graduate student Pete Eyheralde along with the Mahaska County Conservation Board Naturalist Laura DeCook were uncovering bones left and right at the dig site.

“They’ve got about a dozen bones they want to take out,” said Dr. Jim North of William Penn University. “This is a very productive site.”

North said researchers were trying figure out how much top soil needs to be taken out to extract the bones. He said workers have to dig straight down to fossils instead of digging in from the sides in order to prevent cave-ins.

“It looks like tedious work, but it’s exciting,” North said. “You uncover a bone a little at a time.”

Dave Brenzel of the Indian Creek Nature Center said the volunteers had found a mammoth’s lumbar vertebrae.

“We’ve got a section of lower back that looks associated,” he said. “It’s not unusual for backbones to be articulated.

“It’s the most complete thing we’ve seen,” he added.

Later in the day, workers also found a mammoth tooth from a lower jaw, Brenzel said.

Brenzel said 14 people are working side by side as closely as the fossils they find.

“This area is a game of pick up sticks,” he said.

As the dig site has expanded, workers have dug out stair steps to help with removal of debris from the dig site and to mark the limit of where fossils have been found, Brenzel said.

Indian Creek Nature Center Naturalist Jan Aiels said working at the dig site is a wonderful learning experience.

“This is such a unique opportunity for hands-on science,” she said. “It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity.”

“I marvel at the natural history of this county,” Brenzel said.

Brenzel said the lands that the county conservation board takes care of includes this site, sand prairies and coal fields.

The mammoth dig site is “a particularly vivid way to grab people’s attention,” he added.

Herald Editor Duane Nollen can be reached by email at oskynews@oskyherald.com