Researchers from Idaho State University pray that a new discovery uncovered near American Falls Reservoir in their home state of Idaho may only be part of a whole, yet to be seen. Earlier this month, in the course of surveying an excavation site while working for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the university alongside avid fossil hunters uncovered a portion of a Columbian era mammoth skull complete with tusks. And the team believes the entire rare skeleton may also be buried in the reservoir.
Estimated to have died at only the age of 16 years old, the mammoth fossil dates back to between 70,000 to 120,000 years ago, though further radioactive dating will conclusively indicate the age of the fossil in coming days. While the team scurried to gather preliminary data earlier this month, in hopes of uncovering the full size skeleton nearby, the team was forced to postpone their excavation on Saturday Oct. 18, as the reservoir's water level rose submerging much of the excavation site's work from this previous summer.
"It's a very important North American Pleistocene site, and we have researchers from all over the world coming here to study the fossils from American Falls" lead researcher and collections manager for the Idaho Museum of Natural History, Mary Thompson says. "There may be a whole mammoth here, so that is rare."
While the rising water levels impeded the excavation for the time being, Thompson and her team of researchers are not too worried as they plan to continue excavating next summer when the reservoir's water levels drop again. And workers know they'll once again be able to find the rare site because they built a barrier to keep the fossil in place even while underwater.
"It gives us a little more time to prepare if this is a complete mammoth, to get the funds together" Thompson says. "This is going to be substantial to go out and excavate a complete mammoth."
The team hopes that next summer the excavation site will continue to provide amazing and rare discoveries aside from the mammoth skeleton. as well. Known worldwide for its rare fossils, the American Falls area has produced some of the most intact and complete fossils of rare extinct species over recent decades. Ranging from saber-toothed tigers to giant sloths, Idaho Museum of Natural History owes much of its current and past exhibits to the discoveries made in the reservoir site.
Thompson says that while these discoveries are an amazing find for researchers like herself, who have been in the field for years, they are even more valuable to the next generation of archaeologists who will learn the ins and outs of excavation when uncovering a specimen of mammoth size and proportion.
"It's a very unusual opportunity" Thompson says. "My crew is mainly students, and these are things that I can't teach in the classroom or in the lab."