Walk Among Fossils at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota
Don't Miss the Wooly Mammoths of South Dakota
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.
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 Bully No More
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 a 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.
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 about 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).
Some Of the Museum's Displays Include
competing perspectives about what caused the mammoths' extinction
fossilized teeth, bones, and replica skeletons
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)
interactive programs/activities for children
information on how humans depended on mammoths for survival.
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. Additionly, 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 sink hole of death.
The Mammoth Site: Window to the Past
Did You Know?
Scientists genetically mapped the woolly mammoth's DNA and found it to be 99.40% identical to the African elephant.
Comparing Woolly Mammoths and Columbian Mammoths
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
6 tons (males)
10 tons (males)
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
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
plant food, primarily grass, sedges, shrubs, mosses, flowering plants
woody plants, grass and sedge; similar to wooly mammoth
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
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 which will intrigue, teach, and make you think.
Should scientists use DNA cloning to resurrect the wooly mammoth from extinction?
Just A Short Drive From Other Great Places
About an hour and 15 minutes and a beautiful drive from Rapid City. Go ahead and make the trip!
Almost an hour and 15 minutes from Mount Rushmore. Worth the trip.
Adult – $10.14 + tax
Senior – $8.29 + tax
Active Military & Veterans: $7.37 + tax
Children 4-12: $7.37 + tax
Children 3 and Under: Free
© 2015 FlourishAnyway