A Columbian mammoth that roamed North Texas more than 10,500 years ago has been discovered in eastern Parker County, a fragile find that patient workers are meticulously extracting from its sandy grave.
Don Esker, with the Baylor University Geology Department, called the mammoth “special,” despite its relatively young age.
“Finds from the Pleistocene (Ice Age) are pretty common in Texas,” said Esker, a former director of the Waco mammoth site before it became the Waco Mammoth National Monument. “This is because geologically speaking, the Pleistocene wasn't that long ago. It started 2.5 million years ago, and ended only 11,500 years ago. That sounds like a long time, but compare it to T. Rex, which vanished 66 million years ago, it’s practically yesterday. That means there has been less time for fossils to be destroyed by erosion and weathering.”
The remains were discovered this spring when the property’s landowner was using a bulldozer on a construction project and grazed one of the bones. It was clear that these were not the remains of a coyote or wild hog.
“The landowners are thrilled we’re here and excited students are working on it,” said Lori Gouge, associate professor of geology at Weatherford College. “Technically the discovery belongs to them, this is their property. But they’ve been so gracious in donating the discovery to Weatherford College.”
The dig is being conducted by a team led by staff and students at Weatherford College, with help from the Tarrant County Archaeological Society; students from Baylor, UT Arlington, Tarleton; Texas Historical Commission stewards from Parker and Travis counties; and museum paleontologists.
The Star-Telegram is not identifying the exact location of the site, which is east of Weatherford. The landowner declined to comment.
‘A 6.7 or 7 out of 10’
Eskers said the workers are doing a great job despite some “unfavorable circumstances.”
“The bones are as fragile as anything I've ever seen,” he said.
He one of the reasons is because roots had grown into some of the bones and the expanding clay soil had been wedging other bones apart. Also, he said the bones were probably in less than perfect shape when they were buried.
“The surface texture of the bone resembles what you'd see on an elephant skeleton that sat on the surface being degraded by the elements for a couple of years,” Eskers said. “The idea the animal wasn't buried instantly is also reinforced by the fact the remains are somewhat scattered.”
He said that about 15 to 20 percent of the mammoth appears to be at this site, making it a “6.7 or 7 out of 10 in my book. And that number could go up if more gets found.”
He said the identity of the mammoth is “tricky” to work out, but it appears to be a male.
“We can tell from the one well-preserved molar that it was a Columbian mammoth, but beyond that ... it's age of death will eventually be worked out based on the molar they discovered. When the whole thing is uncovered we'll be able to peg it's age to within an 18-month window,” he said “In the mean time, the large diameter of the base of the tusks makes it likely to be a fully mature male, at least 30 years of age.”
The Columbian mammoths lived across North America, from southern Canada as far south to Costa Rica, according do the Waco Mammoth website. The mammoths, which were known for their long, hook-like tusks, could reach up to 13 feet in height and weigh up to 20,000 pounds, or a little more than three Chevy Suburbans.
They have been found in North Texas before, the most notable find coming at a gravel pit in Ellis County in May 2014 . That mammoth, nicked “Ellie May,” is on display at the Perot Museum in Dallas.
‘This is really neat’
Eskers said once the mammoth is out of the ground, cleaned and repaired, there are a many “cool experiments” that the students and staff at Weatherford College can run to discover more about its diet, migratory patterns and life history.
“This is really neat,” said Annaliese Sonntag with the Tarrant County Archeological Society. “This is my first mammoth. It’s more delicate than anything I’ve ever worked on before.”
Sonntag, along with Gouge, have been carefully moving dirt from around the tusk, teeth and bones of the mammoth.
“The next goal is to plaster the tusks, jacket them and get them to the college,” Gouge said. “The molar I’ve found was attached to bone that may have been part of his cheek.”
She said not all of the bones are intact, including ones found in a “bone bed.”
“It's an area with several large bones all pretty deteriorated,” Gouge said. “It’s difficult to identify what they once were because the remaining bone material does not include the original exterior portion of the bone.”
Gouge said she’d like to have the tusk out of the ground and at the college before the fall semester begins in August.
“After we get it to the college we’ll preserve it and it’ll be placed on display,” Gouge said. “It will be used in demonstrations and offer a rare learning experience for our students and community.”