Mammoth On The Move: Rare, Nearly-Intact Skeleton Heads To Dallas

Sep 20, 2014
Originally published on September 20, 2014 8:21 pm

For tens of thousands of years, the skeleton of a giant mammoth lay in one place: a gravel pit about 50 miles south of Dallas.

A few months ago, the bones were unearthed — and now they're on the move. Paleontologists are carefully packing them up, preparing them to travel to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science, in Dallas.

A Gravel Pit Reveals Its Secret

Ethan Beasley, along with his uncle Marty McEwen, discovered the skeleton last May. It was a typical day at the family's sand and gravel company in Ellis County, Texas — until McEwen hit something hard with the excavator. Beasley jumped down from his dump truck and brushed the brown dirt off a few feet of mammoth tusk.

"We uncovered the end down toward the head," he remembers. "For a long time we were just standing there, looking at it, really didn't know what to do."

They called a paleontologist from nearby Navarro College and for the next few months, a small team of volunteers worked to remove layers of sediment from the ancient beast — a Columbian mammoth, a relative of the living elephant, estimated to be 20,000 to 40,000 years old.

During the dig, Beasley became a sort of town crier, updating locals on progress.

"You go through town, people ... they call it the elephant or dinosaur or something," he says. "They're like, 'Ya'll dug it up? How's it going?' "

Now, the digging is completed. Next step: the move.

For weeks, Perot Museum paleontologist Ron Tykoski has been carefully wrapping the vertebrae, neck, rib and shoulder bones of the animal in toilet paper, wet plaster strips and burlap.

The result is a massive white bundle that weighs a thousand pounds. Eight people work together to flip it, so the other side can be wrapped up as well. Right now, the bones rest on two-by-fours; soon, they'll be in a museum.

Insight Into An Extinction

Columbian mammoths have been found across the U.S. before, as well as in other locations in Texas.

"There were a lot of these animals here," Tykoski says. "They must have loved it around here ... You find their remains all across parts of southern North America."

But this discovery stands out because the skeleton is nearly complete. Usually, says paleontologist Paul Sereno, bones have been scavenged by animals or washed away.

This skeleton also has both tusks, which measure more than 7 feet long. Scientists expect the tusks, in particular, will be a rich source of information.

"The tusk will give you all sorts of details about the animal," says Sereno, who teaches at the University at Chicago. "If you section that, you'll be able to not only tell something about the age of the animal but also about climate variation, literally year by year, as the animal grew that tusk."

Sereno says the Columbian mammoth can help us understand how quickly a species can go from being at the top of the food chain to the bottom of a gravel pit.

"The idea of climate change, the idea of a changing Earth is happening before us. You look at an animal like this and say, as little as 9,000 years ago there were long-tusked mammoths wandering around Texas — pretty amazing," he says.

Imagine a herd of elephant-sized creatures grazing in the fields south of Dallas, alongside short-faced bears and saber-toothed cats.

"And then all of a sudden, around 10,000 years ago, they were gone in a flash," says the Perot Museum's Tykoski.

The next step is to get the bones to the Perot Museum's lab in Dallas, carefully clean them and pump them full of glue for preservation.

Museum officials still have to give the mammoth a name and decide whether to put it on display. There's already one Texan mammoth in the collection, but he may be willing to show some Southern hospitality and scoot over for a friend.

Copyright 2014 KERA Unlimited. To see more, visit http://www.kera.org/.

Transcript

ARUN RATH, HOST:

Packing for a big move is always a pain. But some paleontologists in Texas have it really tough. They've been boxing up the skeleton of a woolly mammoth, which is - what's the word - mammoth, not to mention tens of thousands of years old. The bones will make their way to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. Reporter Lauren Silverman of member station KERA tagged along for the last leg of the journey and sent this report.

LAUREN SILVERMAN, BYLINE: For weeks, Ron Tykoski has been in the town of Italy, Texas, carefully wrapping bones in toilet paper, wet plaster strips and burlap.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

RON TYKOSKI: No matter, keep it going. If something breaks, we glue it later.

SILVERMAN: Tykoski is a paleontologist with the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The bones he's covering are the vertebrae, neck, rib and shoulder bones of a mammoth. He's preparing this massive white bundle for a trip to Dallas. It weighs 1,000 pounds and rests on a frame of two by fours.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

TYKOSKI: OK, on three. One, two, three.

SILVERMAN: Eight people lift and flip it by hand -

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

TYKOSKI: Heavier than I thought.

SILVERMAN: - So they can wrap the other side.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVAL RECORDING)

TYKOSKI: Grab her under there.

SILVERMAN: This Columbian mammoth is estimated to be 20,000 to 40,000 years old.

TYKOSKI: There were a lot of these animals here. They must've loved it around here. And you find the remains all across parts of southern North America.

SILVERMAN: Picture a heard of elephant-like creatures grazing in the fields south of Dallas alongside short-faced bears and saber-toothed cats.

TYKOSKI: And then all of a sudden, around 10,000 years ago, they're gone in a flash.

ETHAN BEASLEY: You know, it kind of makes you just sit back and think it was a lot different years and years ago.

SILVERMAN: That's Ethan Beasley. He discovered the skeleton along with his uncle Marty McEwen last May. It was a typical day at the family's sand and gravel company, when McEwen hit something hard with the excavator. Beasley jumped down from his dump truck and brushed the brown dirt off a few feet of mammoth tusk.

BEASLEY: We uncovered the end down toward the head. And for a long time we were just standing down there looking at it - really didn't know what to do.

SILVERMAN: They called a paleontologist from nearby Navarro College. And for the next few months, a small team of volunteers worked to remove layers of sediment from the ancient beast, during which time Beasley became a sort of town crier, updating locals on progress.

BEASLEY: When you go through town, people are like so they dug up the el - of course, they all call it elephant or dinosaur or something. They're like, y'all dug it up yet? Is it gone? How's it going?

SILVERMAN: Columbian mammoths have been found across the U.S. and in Texas before. But this one stands out because the skeleton is nearly complete. Paleontologist Paul Sereno says usually bones have been scavenged by animals or washed away. This one has both tusks, which measure more than seven feet long.

PAUL SERENO: The tusk will give you all sorts of details about the animal. If you section that, you'll be able to not only tell, you know, something about the age of the animal, but you'll be able to tell about climate variation literally year-by-year as the animal grew that tusk.

SILVERMAN: Sereno, who teaches at the University of Chicago, says this relative to the living elephant can help us understand how fast a species can go from being at the top of the food chain to the bottom of a cement pit.

SERENO: The idea of climate change, the idea of the changing earth is happening before us. And you look at an animal like this and you say as little as 9,000 years ago, there were long-tusked mammoths wandering around Texas. Pretty amazing.

SILVERMAN: The next step is to get the bones to the Perot Museum's lab in Dallas, carefully clean them and pump them full of glue for preservation. Museum officials still have to give the mammoth a name and decide whether to put it on display. There's already one Texan mammoth in the collection, but he may be willing to show some southern hospitality and scoot over for a friend. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Silverman in Dallas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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