The Ottumwa Courier

Southeast Iowa

August 26, 2013

Mahaska mammoths taught summer lessons

OSKALOOSA — The mammoth dig site in rural Mahaska County has been a boon for educators as they uncover more fossils this summer.

Oskaloosa Herald staff and their family members had the opportunity to help researchers at the dig site Saturday. There were about a half dozen adults and five children who traveled to the site to help researchers.

As the group gathered for the trek to the site, Dave Brenzel of the Indian Creek Nature Center did a mammoth workshop for the group.

Brenzel showed the group bags of mammoth fossils that had been collected over the summer.

"We're getting these ready to go out to William Penn," he said. There were at least 50 baggies full of fossils, he added.

"This is the summer stuff and we're going to have a couple more buckets," Brenzel said.

So far, researchers have confirmed there's three mammoths at the site and there could be one more, that is unconfirmed. An expert from Illinois, Chris Widga, will visit the site in October to inspect the bones, he said.

Brenzel said the Mahaska County site is significant because the mammoths were found in their natural habitat.

"They lived right here and they died where they lived," he said. "There's a lot of mysteries about how they lived."

Elephants are a lot like mammoths — their Ice Age relatives.

"They like water. Elephants need a lot of water," Brenzel said.

Brenzel got out some mammoth toe bones for the children to hold. Mammoths had five toes per limb, he said.

At the site, the Herald volunteers got to sift through lots of sand and clay in search of mammoth fossil fragments.

"We've been finding pieces of bone in here and a couple of Indian arrowheads," Brenzel said.

The volunteers encountered a lot of blue colored clay in the excavations.

Dr. Jim North of William Penn University said the blue color comes from iron that has not oxidized.

"It shows that the area doesn't have a lot of oxygen," he said. As a result, the mammoth bones are well preserved, he added.

"It's a very blue 'Smurf' color when you pull it out," North said.

North said he is making plans to have some of his William Penn science students help with the mammoth bones.

"I'm working on it in my head now," he said.

North said he would like to have three freshmen start on bone restoration. Since the mammoth dig is a multi-year project, it will be an excellent learning opportunity for them.

"This is master degree and Ph. D-type work," he said.

Also, North would like to examine some mammoth fossils with the scanning electron microscope at William Penn.

"I've written a copule of proposals for the scanning electron microscope," he said.

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