Dee Finney's blog
start date July 20, 2011
today's date July 24, 2014
Wyoming cave with fossil secrets to be excavated
Jul 24th 2014 10:01AM
In an image provided by the Bureau of Land Management, date not
known, Bureau of Land Management cave specialist Bryan McKenzie
rappels into Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming during a
cleanup expedition. The cave holds the remains of tens of thousands
of animals, including many now-extinct species, from the late
Pleistocene period tens of thousands of years ago. Starting July 28,
2014, scientists plan to venture back into the cave and resume
digging for the first time in more than 30 years. (AP Photo/Bureau
of Land Management)
CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- For the first time in more than 30 years,
paleontologists are about to revisit one of North America's most remarkable
troves of late Pleistocene fossils: The bones of tens of thousands of
animals piled at least 30 feet deep at the bottom of a sinkhole-type cave.
Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming is 85 feet deep and almost
impossible to see until you're standing right next to it. Over tens of
thousands of years, many, many animals - including now-extinct mammoths,
short-faced bears, American lions and American cheetahs - shared the
misfortune of not noticing the 15-foot-wide opening until they were plunging
to their deaths.
Now, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is preparing to reopen a metal grate
over the opening to offer scientists what may be their best look yet at the
variety of critters that roamed the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains
during the planet's last glacial period around 25,000 years ago.
Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen said she has been getting
ready to lead the international team of a dozen researchers and assistants
by hitting the climbing gym.
"I'm pretty terrified," Meachen admitted Wednesday.
She hasn't done any real climbing before, she said, and the only way in is
to rappel down. The only way out is an eight-story, single-rope climb all
the way back up.
The cave is perpetually cold and clammy, with temperatures in the mid-40s
and humidity around 98 percent. Even Bureau of Land Management regional
paleontologist Brent Breithaupt, who isn't one to get the willies from lots
of animal bones, describes it as a tad creepy.
"One can only hope that, as a researcher, you're able to leave," said
Breithaupt, who visited the cave as a college student the last time it was
open to scientists. "It's an imposing hole in the ground. But one that
actually has very important scientific value."
Some mammal remains from the cave could be over 100,000 years old,
The remote site is exceptionally well preserved. It's far too challenging
and dangerous to have been trammeled in by casual spelunkers. The Bureau of
Land Management installed the grate to keep people and animals out in the
A mound of dirt and rock containing layer upon layer of animal bones rises
from the floor of the 120-foot-wide, bell-shaped chamber. Meachen hopes the
remains are sufficiently preserved in the cold, sheltered environment to
contain snippets of genetic information.
Co-investigator Alan Cooper with the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at
the University of Adelaide will attempt to retrieve fragments of
mitochondrial DNA from the bones, Meachen said.
Such analysis wasn't possible the last time scientists dug in the cave and
could shed light on how the animals were related to their modern
counterparts and each other.
"It's so cold all year long, that it has got just the perfect conditions for
preserving DNA, in multiple species, in large numbers of individuals,"
Meachen said. "Which is not really found anywhere except Siberia and the
Starting Monday, scientists plan to re-explore the cavern, dig and extract
as many fossils over a two-week period as possible. The researchers will dig
by lights powered by a generator at the surface.
A National Science Foundation grant will enable additional excavations in
2015 and 2016.
One goal is to learn more about the Pleistocene extinction, when climate
change and possibly the arrival of humans in North America at least 13,000
years ago wiped out dozens of species.
The scrubby, rocky country surrounding the cave probably looks much like it
did back then, though the climate may have been cooler and wetter, Meachen
The scientists will camp out nearby and venture into the cave more than once
a day. Ropes will haul bones up top in boxes, Meachen said.
"I don't think it's necessarily going to be easy," she said. "But I think
we're going to be pretty well prepared."
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