DENVER The Rocky Mountain Ice Age slowly is making a comeback in Colorado as scientists begin to analyze an estimated 600 fossils and hundreds of pounds of plant matter unearthed near a ski town.
The findings from a site in western Colorado are once-in-a-lifetime discoveries, said Kirk Johnson, chief curator and vice president for research and collections at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.
This is our first clear window into the Ice Age in Colorado, Johnson said Friday at the museum. He was speaking to a packed room with reporters, visitors and a row of children a few feet from a table with parts of the remains of mastodons, mammoths and a piece of the first ground sloth ever found in the state. It also is the highest-altitude ground sloth ever found in North America, museum officials said.
Johnson said the discoveries are unique because they all came from the same dig site near Snowmass Village. Other times, scientists find only the remains of a single animal at one site, he said.
The discoveries were set in motion Oct. 14, when a man operating a bulldozer to expand a reservoir near the town ran over a fossil. Johnson credits the keen eye of the bulldozer operator for spotting the fossil.
Some people say, Oh, its a bone, bulldoze it! Johnson said.
Instead, the worker, Jesse Steele, and a colleague checked online to try to figure what the bone was and called the museum. The fossil turned out to be the remains of a Columbian mammoth.
Museum workers began digging at the site Nov. 2, and what they found was staggering. So far, the discoveries include the remains of as many as 10 American mastodons, four Columbian mammoths, four Ice Age bison, the ground sloth and many Ice Age insects. Theyve also found pieces of chewed wood that show evidence of Ice Age beavers and large amounts of well-preserved wood, seeds and other plants.
Work at the site is finished for the winter, but the museum wants to return next year when snow melts.
Stay tuned for the spring, said Ian Miler, the museums curator of paleontology and chairman of the Earth Science Department.
Colorado scientists already are saying the discoveries at the dig site are among the most important in Colorado history.
U.S. Geological Survey scientists say lab results from the site show it could be 130,000 years old. The geologists said in a statement it appears the fossils were deposited in a small lake or marsh that formed when a stream was dammed by a glacial moraine or accumulation of glacier debris.
Geologists said the discoveries from the dig site have provided them with more than 100,000 years of vegetation and climate records in Colorado.
Its hard to describe what a stunningly thrilling month this has been, said George Sparks, president and CEO of the museum. He said the wife of one of the museums trustees went to the site and described it as a spiritual experience.