Fossilized remains of giant sea turtles, mammoths, and other prehistoric animals are found throughout the grassy plains of South Dakota. The largest and most complete Archelon ischyros (Sea Turtle) ever found is unearthed from the soil in southwestern South Dakota, near the Cheyenne River at Buffalo Gap during the mid-1970s.
I visit Buffalo Gap expecting to see a hotbed of paleontologist and fossil hunting. Unfortunately, other than a wild horse sanctuary not much is going on in Buffalo Gap. In fact, the prehistoric turtle discovered here also left and rests on display in Vienna, Austria.
Hot Tub Time Machine
However, 10 miles down the road in Hot Springs, South Dakota is The Mammoth Site. It is a working dig site of a sinkhole created 26,000 years ago.
In 1974, a bulldozer operator was leveling ground for a housing development planned by landowner Phil Anderson. While grading a small hill, the dozer blade strikes something that glistens white in the sunlight. Unearthed is a tusk, about seven feet long, sliced in half lengthwise, along with other bones.
The landowner, Phil Anderson, offers to halt his housing project until they get a better handle on what is here. This short excavation proves significant, as an unprecedented number of specimens are uncovered.
Interest in the mammoth graveyard grows rapidly after the unearthing of a complete skull with tusks intact. Scientists determine the warm water sinkhole proves too tempting for the Columbian and woolly mammoths. The warm waters draw the animals in and once they slide in are unable to free themselves. This creates a watery grave for dozens of mammoths, camel, wolves, and giant short-faced bears that became trapped leaving an ancient trove of fossil remains. 61 mammoth skeletons have been recovered to date.
By the end of 1975 , Phil Anderson realized his 14 acres of land would be more valuable as a resource for scientific study rather than a housing development. Soon thereafter, through community commitment and Mr. Anderson’s generosity, the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, is born.
Digging the Digs
The Mammoth Site offers tours, and various educational camps and programs. The organization tailors its programs for actual digging toward children, so I opt for the standard site tour. The tour begins with a 10-minute video in a 50 seat theater. Afterward, the guided tour around the sinkhole begins. The guide explains various aspects of the site, tools, and findings using a laser pointer to direct our attention.
After completing the 30-minute tour, we roam free range, to explore the Ice Age Exhibit and Lab downstairs. The exhibit features full-size replicas of mammoths, a giant short-faced bear, and a walk-in mammoth bone hut. The glassed off lab is where researchers actually process specimens they collect. A nice touch is a two-way communication system that allows you to ask questions of the paleontologist as they work.