As you curve around the bend towards Snowmass, the mountains loom into view.
The popular skiing village of Snowmass, Colorado is famous for its breathtaking landscape and its reputation as a pristine wintertime getaway.
It’s a cute town and a gorgeous jewel of nature.
But do you wanna know my favorite place in Snowmass? (Sorry in advance, ski bums!)
It’s the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center, and it’s tucked away in the cosmopolitan pedestrian shops of the Snowmass Mall.
The little museum sits in the office of an old rental agency, since the relatively new discovery that it seeks to educate us about is only a few years old. Politics have so far prevented the Ice Age Discovery Center from getting a dedicated building of its own, but in the space it does have, it presents a wealth of information on a remarkable mountain discovery of one of the richest fossil deposits in the entire world.
Snowmass Paleontological Site
In 2010 a construction crew unearthed a single tusk of a female mammoth.
That was just the beginning.
The Denver Museum of Nature and Science stepped in and uncovered more than five-thousand bones of prehistoric animals–41 species in all.
The ten month project became a race to uncover and carefully extricate these bones, each mired in the gooey, wet muck of an ancient pond. Mammoths, mastodons, camels, horses, sloths, and other species began to rise from the mud in this quaint little town.
As the affectionately-named Snowmastodon project progressed, it was clear that this wasn’t your average paleontological dig site.
The Snowmass paleontological site would become the most productive and intricate picture of Ice Age ecosystems that has yet been found at such high altitude.
This ancient site began humbly in a carved-out pit of sediment, left behind by the movement of massive glaciers. 150,000 years ago, glaciers covered the area that would someday be Snowmass Village. Slowly, thousands of years, the massive Bull Glacier retreated and carved this bowl that would fill with melting glacier water and become Lake Ziegler.
Imagine that Lake Ziegler continues to be fed by glaciation until about 140,000 to 120,000 years ago. when temperatures rise and Lake Ziegler becomes a lush area of grassy plains.
Animals flock to the lake as a natural water source, and plant life is abundant. The remains of organisms from this time period are preserved in the lake, where dead things decayed naturally and were covered by lake sediment.
Around 50,000 years ago, wind carries silt into the lake, and it becomes a full-fledged swamp. Here, animals become mired in the gunky swamp and can’t get out.
A span from 150,000 to about 50,000 years of stuff living and dying around Lake Ziegler–and each layer reveals a new picture of the ever-changing Ice Age ecosystems of Snowmass.
It’s a remarkable thing that the site wasn’t destroyed by glacial activity and its rising and falling march across North America. The Smowmass dig site was such an amazing find that there was a scramble to produce a quality public exhibit to help inform and inspire the general public.
Ice Age Discovery Center
The little science center in the middle of the pedestrian mall pops up in between ski shops and clothing stores. The center’s front desk coordinator, Judy, greets you and directs you into this free museum. Donations, of course, are happily accepted and benefit the science education efforts of the center.
The discovery center’s paleontologist, Tom Temme, is a fantastic source of knowledge on the Snowmass site. Here he shows me an ancient pine cone, just recovered from the rich dark earth through which he was sifting, microscope and tweezers at hand.
At this live discovery area there are several displays of sabre-toothed cat skulls, replica bones, and a fun comparison between human teeth and actual fossil horse, camel, and bison teeth. The replica of the giant claws of an ancient ground sloth really emphasizes just how big some of these animals were.
A very important distinction is the main difference between a mammoth and a mastodon, and the exhibit text helps us understand the very different tooth morphology that is diagnostic between these two gargantuan mammals. Mammoths have teeth that look almost like a washboard, while mastodons have mountain-like teeth. This reflects their differing diets, with mammoths grazing on grasses and mastodons browsing on leafy and crunchy greens.
A Not-So-Different World
The animals that came to Lake Ziegler in Snowmass were a diverse array of creatures. Woolly mammoths, mastodons, camels and horses roamed an icy landscape that gave way to plains with a wide variety of plant life.
One of the coolest things about the preservation at Snowmass is that it is so incredible good. Leaves were peeled up from the muck, still green after 100,000 years, only to slowly oxidize in the presence of air. Bones of giants and small creatures alike came up out of the ancient lake site, so quickly that teams of paleontologists held pseudo-races to count which team could exhume the most bones. (I’m rooting for team tiger salamander!)
I highly recommend the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center–it’s a showcase of the remarkable paleontological discoveries here in Snowmass Village, and the friendly and knowledgeable staff will help you figure out your mammoth from your mastodon.
Have you ever visited Snowmass, Colorado? Did you know the paleontological treasure in the quaint little town’s backyard? Tell us your paleontology dreams in the comments below!