Pella Chronicle

October 23, 2013

Old bones meet high tech

Oskaloosa Herald

OSKALOOSA — The effort at the mammoth dig site in rural Mahaska County went high-tech Saturday.

Deb Waggett of the University of Iowa's Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences was GPS mapping the dig site. She used a telescope system with a handheld data storage system to map the locations of mammoth bones found at the dig site.

Waggett said the data she collected Saturday will create a 3-D map of the locations of the bones at the site.

Waggett, earned her Ph.D from Iowa in 1999. She's on sabbatical from her college in Vermont to work with her former Iowa professor Holmes Semken at the mammoth site.

Waggett said that Iowans have asked her way she traveled from Vermont to Iowa to study mammoths. It's because mammoths are here in Iowa.

"We don't have mammoths in Vermont," she said.

"To be on the ground floor of a new find is exciting," she said.

Semken said the bones are not the only important thing at the dig site. Researchers want to know how did the bones get to be where they were found. If a mammoth died at the spot they were found at the dig site, the whole skeleton would be found intact. However, many bones were deposited at random at the site.

Researchers can find three mouths but only one leg — "that's the story," Semken said.

Potentially, researchers could discover how the mammoths lived and died and learn about the climate of the area from data gathered at the site.

"It take so many people to find out what happened," Waggett said. "All the experts in different fields tell us the story. It's special." 

Once researchers piece the story of the Mahaska mammoths together, the data collected can be used as a model to predict what other mammoth sites could be like, Semken said.

University of Iowa researcher Art Bettis was back at the site to study soil strata exposed at the site.

"We're dealing with a spring deposit," Bettis said.

Some researchers had thought the Mahaska County site was a plunge pool, Holmes said.

Bettis said he was drawing samples from three sections of the dig site for analysis.

"There's wood in all three of the units," he said. Researchers can then determine the age of samples and fossils found at those levels to see if they are the same age.

Most of the bones found the past couple of weeks have come from the lower part of the dig site, Bettis said.

One of the bones found was determined to be 15,000 years old. Researchers can see how the fossil's age compares with the soil samples.

Bones found in clay will indicate where the mammoth died. However, bones found in other kinds of soil could have been washed down to their final resting places. Recently, mammoth bones were found amongst rocks, which intrigues researchers, Bettis said.

Mahaska County Conservation Board Naturalist Laura De Cook said a volunteer crew of workers were assisting the researchers Saturday.

"We have a really good crew," she said. There was enough workers for two sides of the site to be excavated.

"There's lots of good things getting accomplished," De Cook added.