Saturday, May 24, 2008

A Mammoth Undertaking -- The Elephants' Graveyard

In 1974, a bulldozer driver, working on a new development near Hot Springs, South Dakota, hit something hard. The object seemed to be a tusk and work was halted. Fortunately, paleontologist Dr. Larry Agenbroad was contacted and he confirmed suspicion that the find was significant -- the tusk of a prehistoric mammoth. How lucky that the landowners, Phil and Elenora Anderson, were interested in more than just a quick profit on their property! They gave Dr. Agenbroad two years to research the extent and importance of the site.

And it is important -- possibly the largest mammoth site in the world. The site is a giant sinkhole which claimed dozens and dozens of animals. So far, 56 mammoths (53 Columbian and 3 wooly) have been identified and Dr. Agenbroad estimates that that many or more remain interred in the dried earth. Other animals found on the site include a giant short-faced bear, camels, llamas, wolves and fish.

All the identifiable mammoths were male -- most of them estimated at 12 to 29 years of age. In modern elephant societies, young males are typically kicked out of the group when they start to get rowdy. It difficult to think too much about the situations leading to their deaths. The sinkhole was filled with water -- warm, artesian spring water -- and the hole was probably surrounded with the lushest grass. It was, no doubt, an appealing spot but deadly to any who ventured too close to the edge. And many did.

Over thousands of years, the sinkhole drained. Minerals in the water had formed a kind of cement with the bones and sediment. The ground around the sinkhole eroded away, leaving a hill -- looking like all the other rolling hills in the area.

After researching the site, Dr. Agenbroad recommended that the bones be left in-situ and efforts began to raise money for more exploration and facilities. Today all but 20' of the sinkhole is covered by huge, climate-controlled visitor center.

Dr. Agenbroad is the principal investigator at the site and directs all scientific activities. He's gracious and accessible and a born teacher. When docents get children whose "whys" exceed their "becauses," they call in Dr. Agenbroad. "I love visiting with these kids," he says, "and I tell them, 'If you're really interested, come back when you're 16.' Fifteen have," he continues. "Fourteen are in college and one just graduated from the University of Texas."

The Mammoth Site is a do-not-miss for travelers to South Dakota and so is Dr. Agenbroad.

1 comment:

Love, Music, Wine, & Revolution said...

Wow! How interesting! The wealth of knowledge we pick up on these trips, right? And how wonderful to have an outlet!