Scientific Work Has Just Begun On East Idaho Mammoth Remains

Nov 14, 2014

The discovery of a mammoth skull near eastern Idaho’s American Falls reservoir recently made national headlines. But scientists' work on the mammoth has just begun.

Four of Mary Thompson's paleontology students work on prepping the skull for extraction. Left to right they are Casey Dooms, Adam Clegg, Jeff Castro and Travis Helm.
Credit David Walsh / U.S. Bureau of Reclamation

To get the skull back to the lab at Pocatello’s Idaho Museum of Natural History, Mary Thompson’s team had to encase it in 200 pounds of plaster and haul it up a 30-foot cliff. Thompson is a paleontologist and senior collections manager at the museum. She says it’s a two-week process just to get the skull out of that protective plaster jacket. Then they start studying it.

Cutting the skull out of the plaster back at the lab.
Credit Mary Thompson / Idaho Museum of Natural History

“For every hour we’re out in the field you can talk about 10 to 20 hours back in the lab,” Thompson says. “We’ve got our work for the winter.”

Thompson says they already know this mammoth was about 16 years old when it died. There’s a lot more she hopes to learn, for example how it died. And Thompson says if she’s right that there is a complete skeleton just below the surface, there’s a lot more to learn.

Thompson’s crew just managed to get the skull out of the ground before the site was covered by rising water. They’ll have a narrow window to get the rest of the skeleton out. They have to wait for irrigation use to draw down the reservoir's water level.

“Late July, early August might be the earliest we’re able to get back into the site,” Thompson says. “We’re hoping that we have at least a month if not two months back in there. It’s going to take, I’m estimating, at least three to four weeks if this is a complete mammoth to get it out of the ground and get everything done that we need to do.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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