ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
In western Colorado, the fossilized remains of mammoths, mastodons and a slew of Ice Age creatures have been turning up at a dizzying rate. Researchers think it might be one of the most significant finds of its kind to date.
Conrad Wilson of member station KDNK in Carbondale, Colorado, visited the site, and he sent this report.
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CONRAD WILSON: The credit for this find goes to construction worker Jesse Steele, who says he pretty much grew up on the seat of a bulldozer. Last month, he was working on a typical municipal project: expanding a reservoir near Aspen Ski Resort.
Mr. JESSE STEELE (Construction Worker): I was stripping the peat moss and noticed a couple of rib bones come up in the loaded dirt up in front of me. And at that point, I stopped and got out and looked at them.
WILSON: It was clear this was something big.
Mr. STEELE: It was kind of scary. I guess it made me nervous right at first. The bones didn't look like bones. You know, I mean, gosh, they're so well preserved that they wasn't like white bones that you would dig up or anything. And it was kind of an eerie feeling for a minute. And then the excitement really, really kicked in.
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Mr. BRENDAN ASHER: It is a Columbian Mammoth.
WILSON: That's archeology grad student Brendan Asher. He's one of 40 researchers from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who've descended on the site.
With a well-practiced motion, Asher takes a trowel and slowly and ever so tediously slices away the surrounding earth to expose the skeleton of the mammoth.
Mr. ASHER: Essentially, what we're doing is shaving off, millimeter by millimeter, very thin levels - layers to expose what's below and potentially to uncover more bone, as well as to, hopefully, find evidence, potentially of human interactions with this animal.
WILSON: Compared to other finds in North America and Siberia, this site is more complete and detailed. It includes insects, plants and animals. So far, scientists have identified two time periods at the site: one dating back 12 to 16,000 years and another over 40,000 years old.
Overseeing the dig is Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
Mr. KIRK JOHNSON (Chief Curator, Denver Museum of Nature and Science): We've got partial skeletons of many mastodons, of two mammoths, of a couple of bison, including the skull, a magnificent skull of a gigantic Ice Age bison with a 7-foot horn span. We have the bone of Jefferson's Ground Sloth, which is the highest known occurrence of this animal ever found in the world. And we've got a complete skeleton of an Ice Age deer.
WILSON: And the list goes on. So far, they've identified at least 22 species. Scientists aren't certain why the remains of so many animals ended up here over such a long period of time. Johnson says the fact that this site is on top of a mountain, rather than at the base, means less sediment covered the bones as time passed.
Mr. JOHNSON: This is the highest Ice Age site. And it will tell us a lot about what life was like in the Rockies during the last Ice Age. It's a window into an Ice Age ecosystem. We know very little about places like that, so this is really a world-class fossil site.
WILSON: Researchers have spent the last month scrambling to get what they could out of the ground before winter set in. Now they're moving the bones from the dig site to Denver for further analysis. And with what they've found so far, they expect to be back when the ground thaws in the spring.
For NPR News, I'm Conrad Wilson.
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