The 30-Foot High Pile Of Bones That Could Be A DNA Treasure Trove

The Natural Trap Cave in Wyoming may hold specimens of DNA from animals who roamed thousands of years ago. Julie Meachem, a paleontologist leading the expedition into the cave, speaks with Audie Cornish about the secrets she hopes to find.

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ARI SHAPIRO: From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Ari Shapiro.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. A group of paleontologists is getting ready to retrieve a pile of bones. A 30 foot-high pile and sitting on the bottom of a sinkhole cave in northern Wyoming for tens of thousands of years. All types of animals have fallen in creating a fossil jackpot. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has opened the natural trap cave to scientist for the first time in more than 30 years. Doctor Julie Meachem is one of them and she joins me now from the Bighorn Canyon National Park. Doctor Meachem thanks so much for joining us.

JULIE MEACHEM: Thank you.

CORNISH: So, people have known about this cave for a long time. What's the legend of it in paleo-circles?

MEACHEM: Well, this cave was excavated originally from 1974 to 1984 by a team of scientist from Missouri and the University of Kansas and it's really well-known for the amazing amount of fossils that they pulled out and the fact that there are still an amazing number of fossils still left in the cave.

CORNISH: So, why are there so many remains left? How are they so well preserved?

MEACHEM: They're really well preserved because of the temperature conditions and the climate conditions in the cave. It's been constantly cold and moist and so it's sort of served as a refrigerator for fossils if you will.

CORNISH: So, help us understand what it looks like, I understand you can probably see it from where you're standing.

MEACHEM: Yes, it is about a 15-foot-diameter hole, coming down right off a little rock ledge. So, you can't see it when you first approach it, which is probably why all those animals fell in and then as you gaze in it is just a ginormous cavern - it bows out. So, it starts small at the top and it gets very wide at the bottom.

CORNISH: Scary looking?

MEACHEM: It is a little foreboding but when you see the bottom it reassures you a little bit.

CORNISH: All right when you see the bottom and I understand that you were actually practicing some rope climbing today. Talk about the process, how the dissent happens.

MEACHEM: Well, you know, they're rigging up the ropes as we speak and we're going to have to make a dissent, we're going to have to rappel down into the bottom of the cave, which is an 85 foot drop.

CORNISH: Now what are you hoping to discover?

MEACHEM: We would really love to discover some more mammal fossils down there and what we're really hoping to get out of these mammal fossils is some good ancient DNA, that will tell us about the conditions that these animals lived in and how DNA or genes changed with climate .

CORNISH: DNA specifically, just to kind of understand the animals at that time or is there a particular mammal you're looking for?

MEACHEM: We're actually just trying to get a handle on the Pleistocene-Holocene boundary, which is the end of the Ice Age. What we'd really want to know is how that major climate change at the end of the Ice Age affected all types of animals.

CORNISH: So, what kind of animals are we talking about here?

MEACHEM: We're talking about Ice Age megafauna like mammoths and dire wolves, American cheetahs and American lions. We're also talking about things that lived through that extinction event like pronghorn antelope, gray wolves and bighorn sheep.

CORNISH: Now you mention that this has been excavated once in the past. Why did the Bureau of Land Management decide to reopen this cavern now?

MEACHEM: They decided to open it because I applied for a permit. No one has applied for a permit since it was originally closed in the 80s. I recently received funding this year from my institution, Des Moines University and also from National Geographic. And so now that I have the money for the expedition, BLM was very willing to grant me a scientific permit.

CORNISH: Now I understand you've been hitting the gym preparing to make this dissent. Any fears that you have?

MEACHEM: Well, you know, it is a little daunting to repel down 85 feet without a rock wall next to you. But I think that I'm ready for the challenge.

CORNISH: That's Doctor Julie Meachem talking about her excavation of the natural trap cage in Wyoming. She's an assistant professor of anatomy at Des Moines University. Julie, thanks so much and best of luck.

MEACHEM: Thank you.

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