DALLAS (AP) - Wayne McEwen’s 138-acre farm in southern Ellis County produces hay, cattle and - from the gravel pit on his property - the occasional arrowhead or shark tooth.
His son and grandson were gathering road bedding material from the pit in May when McEwen’s excavator hit something even more rare: a 6-foot mammoth tusk. It was the first clue to what would become an unusual paleontological find.
Mammoth remains are not unknown in this area, but they are almost never as well-preserved as the specimen on McEwen’s North Texas farm - a nearly complete mammoth skeleton, intact and unmolested by scavengers, lying on a bed of sand where the creature died 20,000 to 40,000 years ago.
“Usually the bones are scattered and you get the remains of maybe 30 or 40 percent of the animal. But anyone can look at this and know it’s a mammoth. It looks exactly like what it is,” said Tom Vance, the Navarro College professor who oversaw the scientific excavation.
The specimen appears to be that of a female Columbian mammoth, which lived in the region in the Late Pleistocene Epoch. The Columbians were slightly larger but less hairy than the more famous woolly mammoth, which lived near the northern glaciers. The Ellis County mammoth was about 8 or 9 feet at the shoulder and was smaller than average, about the size of a modern-day female Asian elephant.
In July, volunteers alerted officials of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science in Dallas. The Perot Museum sent a representative to McEwen’s gravel pit to take a look. Museum officials were impressed by what they learned. McEwen, in turn, donated the mammoth to the museum.
Colleen Walker, the museum’s CEO, praised the McEwen family, noting that in less caring hands the mammoth “very well could have ended up as part of our Texas highway system.”
McEwen said his family was intrigued from the first.
“We realized there was something interesting there,” he told The Dallas Morning News (https://bit.ly/1twPn6P ). “We knew this was something nice, not something to just haul away.”
A McEwen neighbor who had been a student of Vance contacted the professor, who organized a group of students, staff and amateur paleontology enthusiasts to dig out the remains. Over the next two months, they carefully brushed away sand and silt that had encased the mammoth - growing increasingly excited about what they found.
“We’d find one bone and there would be another one next to it and another and another, and we realized they weren’t just scattered,” Vance said.
McEwen looked on recently with satisfaction.
“It was fun just watching the volunteers,” he said. “They’d come out of the pit and they were grinning from ear to ear. They were just so excited.”
Equally excited is Ron Tykoski, a staff paleontologist, who called the McEwens’ donation “a huge contribution to science.”
Tykoski is working against time to get the bones to the safety of the museum’s research lab. After thousands of years protected by sand, the excavated bones are now exposed to the elements. Last week’s rains washed silt back into sections that had been painstakingly excavated. Mice made a nest out of the paper tags Tykoski used to label the remains.
While water poses a menace to the mammoth bones now, it was water that guaranteed their preservation for thousands of years.
In the Late Pleistocene age, what is now Ellis County was prairie, much as it is now, but much wetter. The area was crisscrossed by rivers, with sandbars that formed at the bows.
Tykoski speculates that the mammoth got bogged down in the wet sand and died. Soon after - so soon that there is no sign that the carcass was ever disturbed by scavengers - floodwaters covered the body with silt.
Within a few weeks, Tykoski will wrap the bones in a protective jacket of plaster and burlap for delivery to an unmarked museum warehouse near the Dallas Design District. He will spend at least a year researching the remains for clues to age, diet and perhaps cause of death.
It is not known yet if the bones will ever be publicly displayed.
Even if the remains had not ended up as road fill, the mammoth bones might have been sold to a private collector. The McEwens’ gift to the Perot Museum means that the specimen can be researched and cataloged by an accredited institution - a necessary condition for any findings to have scientific validity, Tykoski said.
“Without their gift, this magnificent creature might have gone onto the auction block, never to be seen again,” he said.
Information from: The Dallas Morning News, https://www.dallasnews.com
Copyright © 2022 The Washington Times, LLC.