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The Waco Mammoth Site

If you read the Waco post earlier this week, you'll have noticed the "teaser" about the Waco Mammoth site. To be more accurate, since they've now partnered with the National Parks Service, I think it's called the Waco Mammoth National Monument, but we were there with locals, and they just called it the Mammoth Site so I'm sticking with that.

It's currently an active dig site where they have found bones from a bunch of mammoths, like a whole herd of them and they're still finding more.

A bit about the mammoths for the paleontology buffs out there. During the last ice ace, Texas was never covered in ice. It was actually pretty similar temperature to what it is now, maybe a bit cooler, but with way more water and grassland. Apparently water and grass at that time were a good combination for big critters. According to our tour guide giant ground sloths, armadillos the size of Volkswagen beetles, beavers the size of 4-wheelers, and of course, the Colombian Mammoth roamed around those parts. They were named the "Colombian Mammoth" because they only ranged in the Americas (i.e. the continents "discovered"/pillaged by Christopher Colombus). The Colombian mammoth was taller than its woolly cousin, which ranged across all the northern continents, standing about 14' at the shoulder (compared to 10' for the woolly mammoth and about 12' for the modern African elephant) and weighed 20,000 lbs - not the kind of thing you would want to have step on you.

The fossils at this site were discovered back in the 70's when a couple of teenagers in the woods found an interesting bone sticking out of a river bank and brought it into the local museum at Baylor University. It ended up being part of a mammoth femur bone so they started digging and have been finding more and more ever since. So far they have found bones from 24 different mammoths and one camel.

Their theory of why there is an entire herd in that location is that it was a really muddy river bed. They suspect the herd got stuck in the mud during a rainstorm then caught by a flash flood. About that camel mentioned above: apparently mammoths have pretty bad eyesight, so there would be one or two camels that would hang out with a herd. If a predator was approaching the camel could see it coming and sound the alarm, in return the camel got to be protected by an entire herd of mammoths on the defensive. I asked how they came up with this theory for animals that lived tens of thousands of years ago, and apparently, modern elephants partner with zebras in much the same way. Cool, eh?

The mural in the back shows the artists interpretation of what the herd would have looked like, including the unfortunate camel already being swallowed up by the flash flood water.

Other cool mammoth and paleontology facts we learned while we were there:

1. Mammoths only had four teeth, two on the top & two on the bottom, that were used almost exclusively for grinding the 600 lbs per day of grass that they ate. However, they had 6 sets of those teeth that came in conveyor-belt style from the back of their mouth getting progressively larger with each set as they got older. The largest teeth were about the size of shoe boxes.

2. While there is no cartilage to prove it, they suspect that the Colombian mammoths had medium sized ears (like the ones shown in the paintings). This is because the woolly mammoths that have been found in the permafrost in cold climates have really little ears covered in fur to keep them warm, and African elephants currently living in hot climates have really big ears to let out heat, so the moderate "in between" climate probably meant medium sized ears.

3. There are some trees growing into part of the excavated mud in the dig site. Since the soil was such poor quality for plant nutrients, it's likely that the tree roots grew toward a nitrogen source (like a buried body) so they expect to find more fossils in that area as the dig progresses.

Now you know all about mammoths!

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