As Granddaughter Willow has spent several summers in recent years working at The Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, we have joined for many weeks in exploring the fascinating deposit of bones left by scores of mammoths and hundreds of other animals of many species about twenty-six thousand years ago in a warm water sinkhole. Few other specimens of the giant short-face bear have been discovered, and the skeleton found here is impressive. New finds occur regularly, and the excitement that accompanies the discoveries grows with the potential new information about life in another era. The mammoths are almost entirely young adult males who have wandered away from the herd and sought the late winter, early spring abundance of plant food at the edge of the sinkhole, only to slide in the mud into the water and be unable to get a footing to climb out.
Another fascinating location, directed by a former member of The Mammoth Site staff and friend of Willow, is near Waco, Texas, which the President recently designated as Waco Mammoth National Monument. There a natural disaster, presumably a flash flood, destroyed a large herd of mammoths and several other animals, including a camel and a saber-tooth cat, all at one time, 65,000 years ago. As excavators remove tons of earth from that site, even more information comes to light about animals, plants, and climate during that era.
The Gray Fossil Site in East Tennessee, whose vertebrate curator also serves as the new director of The Mammoth Site, provides a deposit of animal and plant fossils in a marshy area, as-yet-undated millions of years ago. So much information lies buried there, along with unusual species, like an extinct red panda, giant tortoise, tapir, peccary, alligator, and rhinoceros, that excavation is expected to continue for over a hundred years.
As a graduate student Willow now works in the collections of the University of Nebraska, including thousands of specimens from the Ashfall Site in northeastern Nebraska, where a plume of volcanic ash from a mega-volcano in Idaho killed animals, birds, and plants at a watering hole twelve million years ago, and left populations of rhinoceros, horses, camels, and many other species in the region extinct, and the land became barren for hundreds of years. Other discoveries in Nebraska and Wyoming continue to add specimens to a collection that will help to identify a long pre-history of information on interactions of climate and conditions with plant and animal life.
These locations join with others popularly known, like the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles or Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, in providing extraordinary locations for exciting discoveries that can change our perceptions of the world and its development through aeons.
The dark side of all of this excitement is the fact that each site is the remnant of the suffering and death of thousands of creatures. Without such tragic events we would know much less about the world around us. In the future, perhaps, we will care enough for our own human species to study and discover why tens of thousands of human beings kill each other with guns every year, with no personal or social benefits as a result. That should be of interest and fascinating, too, though it appears to be harder for us to get excited about understanding that tragic and unending story in our own era.