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Walking with mammoths

Email   Print   Share By Rachel Parks, Sentinel Leisure Editor
September 16, 2010 | Leisure
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Visitors can explore the dig site and stroll around the grounds. Rachel Parks, Sentinel Leisure Editor
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The bones of 24 mammoths were discovered at the site and more might be located there. The tusks of the mammoth are immediately recognizable to visitors.
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A fossilized mammoth tooth sits at the dig sight. The tooth was not found at the Waco site but was donated to give visitors the idea of the size of a mammoth tooth. The teeth could grow to the size of shoebox.
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Samantha Mabry, 5, gazes at the mammoth bones from the catwalk located above the dig site. The site opened to the public in December 2009.
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Several deposits of bones have been discovered at the site. In addition to the mammoth remains, the tooth of a sabertooth cat was also found during the excavation.
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Tourists take a short walk from the welcome center to the mammoth site dig shelter. Waco has the distinction of being the only location in the U.S. where the remains of a mammoth “nursery herd” have been found.
WACO – Thousands of years ago, groups of Columbian mammoths traveled across the United States. The animal wasn’t as furry as its counterpart, the woolly mammoth. In fact, it had very little fur and was found all over the North American continent, including present-day Texas.

Now fast-forward to 1978. In Waco, two men were wandering around looking for Native American artifacts when they stumbled across a bone. It was a bone that was far too large to belong to any animals they knew of so they alerted individuals at the local museum now known as the Mayborn Museum.

What they had stumbled across was an amazing historical find. A dig was started at the site and it was discovered that the bones from 24 Columbian mammoths were buried at the site not far from downtown Waco.

While that was a significant find, the dig had more surprises in store. The site is the only known location in North America of the remains of a “nursery herd,” or a herd of mammoths including females and juvenile mammoths. 19 skeletons appear to be the remains of the nursery herd. The Waco site is also the second largest nursery herd found in the world.

A partnership was formed between Baylor University, the city of Waco and the Waco Mammoth Foundation to protect and develop the site. Plans were in the works for years to open the dig site to tourists but that required planning and funding.

Finally, in December 2009, the Waco Mammoth Site opened to the general public. There is a small visitor center and a climate controlled structure over the actual dig site. When my parents came to visit last month we headed to the site to check it out. It was educational and interesting although the site is still small.

Our tour guide, Troy Gray, said there are plans for site expansion in the next 10 years or so. In fact, there is current legislation that would allow the National Parks Service to have a presence at the site. While the site may still be in its infancy, the information is top notch and it’s something neat for kids (or adults) who are interested in prehistoric history.

So what are some of the highlights of the visit? Well, I learned more about Columbian mammoths than I ever thought possible. The huge mammals often stood 14 feet high at their shoulders. At the site there is a lamppost with a ribbon tied at the 14 foot mark. You have to use your imagination, but a large group of animals standing that height would be an amazing sight.

Obviously, the most recognized part of the mammoth was its tusks. Gray said that tusks were actually modified incisor teeth, used to move things and to attract a mate. Also, like humans, mammoths favored one tusk over their other and were either right- or left-tusked.

On average, mammoth tusks that have been discovered are approximately 10 feet long, but 16-foot tusks have been found.

Gray explained that the mammoths at the Waco site may have died in a flood event and sadly, the mammoth’s tusks may have played a role in a last-ditch rescue effort. At the site, bones of juvenile mammoths were found in the tusks of adult mammoths, leading some who have worked on and studied the site to believe that the adult mammoths may have been trying to lift the youngest members of the herd out of rising water.

The site is no longer an active dig but that doesn’t mean all the bones have been found. Additonal deposits of bones may still be at the site. If so, they are now protected by the dig shelter building.

In addition to mammoth bones, the tooth of a sabertooth cat was located at the site and the bones of an unidentified animal were also uncovered. Originally, the now-unidentified animal was assumed to be a sabertooth cat because it was located with the tooth, but Gray said experts who looked at the skeleton have now decided it is probably not a sabertooth as originally thought.

Visitors start their tour at the welcome center where there is a small gift shop. Gray then took our group on a short walk, speaking to us about mammoths and ticking off a list of interesting facts.

The huge mammals generally weighed about 10 tons when they were fully grown. That’s roughly the same weight as two empty school buses.

That much weight required a lot of food and water to sustain life. A mammoth could drink up to 50 gallons of water a day and was constantly eating. And of course, that means they produced massive amounts of waste. An individual mammoth could leave behind about 400 pounds of dung a day.

Once Gray was finished with the mammoth overview, we entered the dig site, a large building constructed around piles of mammoth remains. Visitors can spend as much time in the dig shelter as they like looking at the information displayed there or the remains.

The dig site gives tourists a great idea of what an archeological dig looks like.

The bones are clearly marked and remain where they were discovered. Visitors get a bird’s-eye view from a catwalk above the dig site.

When I visited, plans were underway to brighten up the plain walls with a mural. Lee Jamison, the artist who painted murals at the Mayborn Museum, has since started painting and work should be completed in the near future. The staff at the site is knowledgeable, passionate and available to answer questions about mammoths.

That such a significant find is located almost in our backyard makes it easy to visit. How else could you say you saw a bunch of bones from one of the largest mammals in the world?

The site is open 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday. For more information, visit
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