Friday, April 29, 2011

Mammoths drowned while trying to save their babies

Waco - The nursery herd of Columbian mammoths was grazing along the banks of a small creek about 68,000 years ago when a flash flood caught them in the suddenly crumbling silt of a small creek bed.

The rapidly rising waters drowned the cows, who had instinctively formed a circle around the little ones to protect them from danger.

One mother's bones tell the story to the trained eyes of a paleontologist digging in the clay banks of the ancient stream bed.

Her calf was found lying across her massive tusks. They drowned together, stuck in the mud, as she attempted to raise her baby above the danger of the rising waters. Nineteen mother mammoths and their calves perished in that event. In all, the remains of 24 mammoths have been unearthed so far. Six of them are displayed, still embedded in the mud, in situ.

The skeleton of a bull mammoth was found nearby, the victim of a similar event that optical dating techniques – carbon 14 methods don't work very well on bone that has not fossilized - show occurred about 15,000 years later in one of a series of flood-related events.

He, too, had placed a drowning baby across his huge tusks – adapted incisor teeth that weigh about 200 pounds each. Murals on the wall depict the massiveness of the Columbian mammoths. They stood about 14 feet in height, weighed as much as 20,000 pounds, and were 2 to 4 feet taller and about 8,000 pounds heavier than their cousins the wooly mammoths. Those creatures lived in colder climates farther north on the globe during the same Pleistocene epoch, the Ice Age, 12.5 million to 10,000 years in the past.

It all happened very quickly as the mud buried them and preserved their bones, preventing further decomposition, which even after so long a time are as yet unfossilized.

There are no tooth marks that would have been made by predators in an attack; the remains are completely intact. They were never scattered by vultures or predators because there was no time for that, post mortem. They mud engulfed all very quickly as the flood waters closed in.

One wonders at the panic and desperation the mother mammoths must have felt in those fleeting moments that led to their doom and the death of their babies. A scant few minutes before, they had been standing in the dry creek bed where it was easy to reach up with their trunks at eye level and get at the vegetation they fed upon; the next thing they knew, they and their babies were drowning in the thick mud and rising waters of a flash flood.

The herd's bones were preserved perfectly by the air tight seal formed by the alluvium of the Bosque and the Brazos rivers that enveloped them, drowned them, and thus preserved their remains for millenium upon millenium.

The farmers call it gumbo, this rich mix of alluvium bound by clay and made up of the fine silt carried by the floodwaters at the confluence of two rivers. Highly prized, it would grow almost any crop without fertilizer, its nutrients routinely replenished by annual inundation and its spring colors under cultivation a rich mix of green sorghum and the golden tones of ripening wheat which grows on the alluvial plain washed so long against the towering limestone bluffs across the Brazos on its west bank.

It makes the perfect sealant to prevent the decomposition of bone tissue. As soon as they are unearthed, ancient bones begin to rot. That's why most of the remains of the herd – the remaining 18 - have been coated with a special plaster of paris composition and warehoused safely in a controlled environment.

The 100-acre site, which was developed by Baylor University, the City of Waco, and the Waco Mammoth Foundation, likely holds the remains of many ancient creatures.

Its discovery was fortuitous and unexpected. A pair of dairy farmers were exploring the creek bed – looking for arrowheads - one day in 1978 when they noticed a huge bone sticking out of the gumbo in the side of one of its banks. They excavated it and took it to Baylor University's Mayborn Museum where a trained scientist who had seen some mammoth bones before identified it as ancient and, of course, very interesting.

It is the only known discovery of a nursery herd of female mammoths and their offspring in North America.

Today, the dig is protected by a modern air conditioned building that is well lit and very comfortable to visit because of the steel catwalks and cantilevered platforms built over the well-labeled site. There are the remains of an ancient camel and a juvenile saber-toothed tiger, as well as unidentified skeletons that were stuck in the mud for eons unknown. Admission for adults is $7 and there are picnic areas and pleasant paved walkways that thread through the leafy and sun-splashed area.

The remains of the bull mammoth who perished trying to lift his calf above the rising waters are on display at the Mayborn Museum on the campus of Baylor University. Visitors are able to walk out over the exhibit on a clear platform that places the tableau at their feet, suspended over the display.

One of his ribs is broken, quite likely the result of a duel with another bull in an affair of honor fought for mating rights with the females, or an injury sustained in defense of the herd.

Legislation is pending in the present Congress to designate the Waco Mammoth Site a National Monument, and thus part of the National Park System.

U.S. Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison have sponsored a bill that would provide the designation, and Congressman Bill Flores has sponsored an identical bill in the House of Representatives.

All three have promised that no federal funds will be required to thus protect the site, which is unique on this continent, the only known discovery of the remains of a nursery herd of Columbian mammoths.

The Legendary didn't have the nerve to ask tour guide Russ Wood how much it cost to develop the site. Mr. Wood is an employee of the City of Waco, quite knowledgeable about the revolutionary new optical dating techniques used to estimate the age of unfossilized remains, and a very pleasant companion on an afternoon stroll through the park.

If you have to ask, you can't afford it, as some Wall Street banking tycoon once quipped to an admiring interlocutor over the price of a steamship he called his “yacht.”

Besides, something tells me President Theodore Roosevelt would not have quibbled about the dollar signs and decimal points involved.

He was an avid taxidermist and collector, widely traveled in pursuit of specimen throughout the Americas and Africa. He contributed lavishly to the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

The Legendary can only hope to live up to the ideals of the revered life style of so honorable a hero as Mr. Roosevelt, Republican, native son of Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York. He must have been quite a leader, for he is said to have recruited his Rough Riders within minutes at the bar of the Menger Hotel in San Antonio.

Either Colonel Roosevelt was a whale of a leader, or the cowpokes and pony soldiers must have been waiting on him. They aren't usually so easily led as that, especially while in their cups at the saloon.

For more information, click on the foundation's website at

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