UI Museum Displays Iowa-Found Mammoth Bones

By Hayley Bruce, Reporter

A mammoth fossil sits on a table during a presentation about the Mahaska County Mammoth Site at the University of Iowa Natural History Museum on Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2012. The presentation was held in observance of National Fossil Day. (Hayley Bruce/The Gazette)

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IOWA CITY, Iowa - Roughly 70 people gathered at the University of Iowa's Natural History Museum to learn more about Iowa-found mammoth fossils in observance of National Fossil Day Wednesday.

The event comes after a farmer in rural Mahaska County found the fossil of a mammoth femur near a creek bed on his property while looking for blackberries with his sons in the summer of 2010. Soon after the farmer brought his discovery to the attention of the University, several representatives from the UI visited the site in December 2011 and agreed to help with the excavation in order to conduct more research on the site.

Since the excavation began in June 2012, volunteers have discovered other mammoth fossils including ribs, vertebrates, hand and foot bones, tusks, a skull and teeth. Those working on the site believe there are at least two mammoths on the property, which is a rare occurrence.

Sarah Horgen, education and outreach coordinator for the museum, said mammoth remains and other ice age remains have been found in nearly all 99 counties in the state. She added she hopes the mammoth fossils and excavation site can be used to ignite interest and educate people on Iowa's history and recover important scientific information.

"As an educational opportunity, I don't see any better way to teach people about history and to get them to appreciate Iowa," Horgen said. You know, Iowa gets a bad rep, but there's some really cool stuff right below our feet. We always joke look in your own back yard and this really is in our own back yard."

Though many questions remain — including how old the mammoths are, how they died, and whether human beings walked the earth while they were alive — Horgen said she hopes their team will eventually be able to provide answers.

In the mean time, John Logsdon, director of Pentacrest Museums, said the mammoth bones may provide some insight on what the Ice Age was like, and what may lie ahead in Earth's future.

"The geology of these times tell us something about what the future is going to hold for us," said Logsdon. "People are really interested in that time in our history as a sort of way of understanding what we might be looking for."

But some of those answers might come at a price, as the team working on the project may eventually need more fiscal support in order to prepare, research and display the mammoth fossils.

"Certainly all the scientific extensions of this aren't cost free," said Logsdon. "At some level we're able to use some student volunteers, but as the specimens get more and more detailed people are professional preparators of fossils and so for certain pieces that will come out we're probably going to need to have a professional preparator some how come in and maybe piece some things together."

Though there is a waiting list of 30 to 40 people who want to volunteer to help out on the site, Horgen said they're always willing to bring people along to help, even if they don't have training in archaeology or excavation.

"You do not need any experience, but you have to enjoy getting really, really dirty," Horgen said.

She added that the group will continue to dig until the ground freezes this winter, and will pick up their excavation in spring.

Because the fossils were found on private land and are property of the landowner, it remains unclear where they will end up once scientific research is complete, but those associated with the project said they hope they will remain in the public sphere.

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