Skip to main content

Walk Among Fossils at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota

FlourishAnyway welcomes the opportunity to travel both stateside and abroad and especially enjoys documenting her fun through photography.

The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig site, meaning you can watch scientists dig for the mammoth fossils that are partially exposed in the earth. There are also assembled mammoth skeletons. The project is housed in a large building.

The Mammoth Site is an active paleontological dig site, meaning you can watch scientists dig for the mammoth fossils that are partially exposed in the earth. There are also assembled mammoth skeletons. The project is housed in a large building.

Fossil Finds: Mammoth Adventures Await in South Dakota

Vacationing in South Dakota? Well, if you leave without visiting the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, you might as well turn around and head right back. The Mammoth Site is a world-class museum that displays Columbian and wooly mammoth bones in situ—that is, as they were originally positioned in the sinkhole when the animals met their fates 26,000 years ago. The museum is both educational and mesmerizing.

Don't Miss the Wooly Mammoths of South Dakota

In the hour or two that it takes to tour the site, watch paleontologists and citizen volunteers at work as they patiently unearth fossils. Just feet away, researchers work with brushes and chisels to carefully coax bones from their dusty graves.

Follow a tour guide around the winding walkways and view fossils close-up. Take photos, ask questions, and imagine what it was like as these animals struggled for their lives and eventually became trapped in this once-thriving watering hole thousands of years ago.

Wooly mammoths once roamed North America along with their larger, less hairy cousins, the Columbian mammoths.

Wooly mammoths once roamed North America along with their larger, less hairy cousins, the Columbian mammoths.

An Unusual Find

Mammoth bones are one of those needle-in-a-haystack finds. They were discovered in Hot Springs, South Dakota, by a construction worker in 1974 while preparing land for new housing development. The man unearthed odd-looking bones that later turned out to include a mammoth tooth.

After additional digging revealed a complete mammoth skull and tusk, local citizens rallied to form The Mammoth Site, now a 501(c)(3) organization. Rather than exploiting the unusual find for personal gain, the landowner graciously left the mammoth remains in place and sold the land to the non-profit organization at cost. Today, the in situ site is 35-67 feet deep and has yielded 61 mammoths to date.

During their average lifespan, mammoths replaced their molars six times.  Over time, their molars grew larger and had more ridges.

During their average lifespan, mammoths replaced their molars six times. Over time, their molars grew larger and had more ridges.

A Museum and Working Dig Site

A building now encapsulates the active dig site so that paleontological research can take place year-round. Scientists from around the world visit the site each July to participate in research, and citizens can even volunteer to take part in field research at the site through the EarthWatch Institute.

Visitors to the Mammoth Site museum gain a unique understanding of mammoths, paleontology, and our changing world. I especially liked that the museum provoked thought and conversation by presenting multiple competing scientific arguments (see table below).

This bone shelter is an example of how early humans used mammoths for survival.

This bone shelter is an example of how early humans used mammoths for survival.

What to Look Forward to in Museum Displays

Competing perspectives about what caused the mammoths' extinction

Information on how humans depended on mammoths for survival

Fossilized teeth, bones, and replica skeletons

Interactive programs/activities for children

Films and visuals about preserved Ice Age mammoths

Thought-provoking questions about whether scientists ethically should clone the mammoth (since it's an ever-increasing technological possibility)

Titans of the Ice Age: No Match for This Deathly Sink Hole

One hundred twenty-two tusks belonging to 61 individual Columbian and wooly mammoths have been identified at the site. Additionally, there are remains of a giant short-faced bear, camel, llama, prairie dog, and other fossilized creatures. Scientists believe these animals met their deaths over a period of about 1,000 years, starting about 26,000 years ago when they fell into a watering hole 65 feet deep.

The unsuspecting animals were enticed by the spring-fed pond with its warm water and vegetation. Mammoths and other animals climbed into the steep pit. Once inside, however, they became trapped when they couldn't find a foothold to climb out. Ultimately, they drowned, starved, or died of exhaustion. Imagine their panic.

Over the years, their bones became entombed in mud, fossilizing and becoming part of the earth around them. Sediment as well as the bodies of other animals accumulated in this natural death pit. Even these great beasts, the titans of the Ice Age, posed no match for this sinkhole of death.

Don't miss the opportunity to step back into time and view mammoths in their final resting place. The Mammoth Site will intrigue, teach, and make you think.

Don't miss the opportunity to step back into time and view mammoths in their final resting place. The Mammoth Site will intrigue, teach, and make you think.

Comparing Woolly Mammoths and Columbian Mammoths

Wooly MammothColumbian Mammoth

Height

Approximately the same size as modern African elephants (males 9–11 ft at shoulder, females 8.5–9.5 ft)

13 ft at the shoulder

Weight

6 tons (males)

10 tons (males)

Fur

Covered in an overcoat of long guard hairs up to 3 ft long with a thick undercoat of fur

Unknown distribution and density of fur but probably less than wooly mammoth because of its generally warmer habitat

Tusks

Male tusks averaged of 8-9 ft length; long tusks that grew spirally from the base and curved around until the tips either pointed towards one another or crossed

Male tusks averaged 14 ft; tusks were less twisted, asymmetrical, and spiral in opposite directions

Average Lifespan

60 years

80 years

Diet

Plant food, primarily grass, sedges, shrubs, mosses, flowering plants

Woody plants, grass and sedge; similar to wooly mammoth

Habitat

Tundra steppe, from northern Asia, north east Europe into northern North America

Southern half of North America, from the northern United States, through Mexico to Costa Rica

The Mammoth Site: Window to the Past

Columbian and wooly mammoths are distant relatives of today's elephants. The gender of the animal can be revealed by its pelvis, and the teeth generally reveal the animal's species, diet, and age (within two years).

All 61 animals found in the Mammoth Site were young males. Like elephants, mammoths were matriarchal societies and young males were cast outs from the family group who often engaged in greater risk-taking behavior.

Three of the 61 are wooly mammoths, with the rest being Columbian mammoths. It isn't known whether the species co-existed or whether one species came along after the other species had vacated the area.

If you're in South Dakota, don't miss the opportunity to step back into time and take a glimpse at the final resting spot of these grand titans of the Ice Age. This world-class paleontological dig site and museum is a rare treat that will intrigue, teach, and make you think.

The Mammoth Site is open year round with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter  Sunday.  Guided tours are 30 minutes long.

The Mammoth Site is open year round with the exception of Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, New Year's Day, and Easter Sunday. Guided tours are 30 minutes long.

Admission Prices

  • Adult: $12
  • Senior: $10
  • Active Military and Veterans: $9
  • Children 4–12: $9
  • Children 3 and Under: Free

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 FlourishAnyway