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Secrets of a mastodon graveyard

Posted on behalf of Matt Kaplan

Locations that are rich in fossils often have intriguing stories behind them. Some are the result of landslides that killed and covered animals long ago. Others were once tar pools that became covered in water, snaring unsuspecting animals that waded in for a drink.

A recently discovered site in the Colorado mountains now hints at another type of grisly demise. Researchers told the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology’s annual conference in Las Vegas last week that the unfortunate beasts found there may have become trapped not in tar, but in quicksand formed in a deadly earthquake.

The site was discovered on 14 October 2010, when a bulldozer ran into a number of mammoth bones at Ziegler Reservoir near Snowmass, Colorado. Palaeontologists were called out, including Kirk Johnson at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and found the nearly complete skeleton of a Pleistocene mammoth (Mammuthus columbi).

The team went on to find more than 600 other bones, also in near-perfect shape, most of them mammoths and mastodons (Mammut americanum) from the same Ice Age time period. A few other species, like bison (Bison latifrons), were mixed in among them.

The discovery is rare because it is located 2,671 metres above sea level, and very few high-elevation sites from the Pleistocene period are known. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the site is how it became home to so many perfectly preserved bones.

“The animals seem to have died and then their skeletons disarticulated, scattering a bit but otherwise in pristine condition,” Johnson told a packed conference hall in Las Vegas on 4 November. “We were baffled.”

An answer was subsequently suggested by Daniel Fisher at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, another palaeontologist working at the site. Fisher knew that mastodon tusks laid down daily growth rings, which can be used to pin down to the day when an animal died. Working with a team of colleagues, he compared the tusks of mastodons at the site to work out whether they all died at the same moment, as would be expected if they perished in a catastrophic event.

Fisher found that this wasn’t the case. A youngster at the site seems to have died several months before most of the adults, with the largest males expiring last.

So the team wondered whether the animals could have starved to death after becoming trapped, something that would kill small animals first. There is no tar at the site but when they looked at the geology of the region, another idea struck them: quicksand.

The fossil site — in a region prone to earthquakes — was a shallow lake with very fine sediment at its bottom that the mastodons had been wandering through. “We think the animals were standing in the lake when an earthquake hit and that this caused the water-logged fine sediments of the lake to suddenly become a quicksand-like substance,” says Johnson. “It solidified again when the earthquake ended, snagging them in place.”

This effect, called liquefaction, is well known in geology. The researchers propose that, once trapped in the sediment, the mastodons and mammoths slowly starved to death. Youngsters with few fat reserves died first, followed by smaller adults and finally the largest males.

Johnson and Fisher are finding other similar layers of fossils at the site, suggesting that liquefaction may have taken place multiple times over thousands of years as the lake slowly filled up with sediment, presumably caused by an earthquake and each time catching out animals eager for fresh water at altitude.

More work is needed to test the theory — including analysis of more fossils and a detailed survey of the geology in the area. But if the idea does prove correct, it will place the Colorado site among the most insidious of fossil traps known.


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    Brian Schmidt said:

    I follow climate change denialism closely, so I’m very suspicious when non-experts proclaim themselves to be personally incredulous regarding a conclusion by experts.

    That said, as a non-expert, I am personally incredulous that partially submerged mammoths couldn’t pull themselves out of the soil when liquefaction had ended.

    Tar pits I can believe. Full submersion and immediate suffocation I can believe. But being stuck in one spot and slowly starving to death without being able to pull their legs out of the soil, is something that needs to be a little more convincing. Maybe they need to a mechanical analysis of soil strength and compare it to an elephant’s strength.

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