Special Studies: Mammoth

Trained eye: Dr. Michael Dunn examines a fragment that was unearthed during the excavation of the mammoth fossil.

By Joshua Rouse
Collegian Staff

When a Grandfield resident stumbled across a large mass in a drainage ditch near his Tillman County home, he never thought it would be the discovery of a lifetime for a group of Cameron students and their professor.

“This guy was walking back from fishing with his grandson and saw something in a roadside ditch making a dam,” said Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Michael Dunn, . “He called us, and I went out there with the Biology Club and collected everything that we thought would be washed out down the creek and lost forever. We then covered everything else up.”

Dr. Dunn contacted the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History in Norman. The museum representatives told him they already had mammoth specimens, so this find was his to do with as he pleased. Dr. Dunn, self-admittedly not a mammoth expert, and a lack of interest in the find lead to the remains being undisturbed at the same spot for more than three years.

“Originally, the club went out there and really worked hard,” Dr. Dunn said. “It was a February day with a clipper blasting through. But they worked hard. After that, there just wasn’t the student interest. You think of a football team that changes every year when they graduate. That’s what happened here. They came and went.”

Interest peaked last year when Dr. Dunn spoke to a friend of his with ties to the Museum of the Great Plains, creating an opportunity to turn the mammoth into an educational tool for not only Cameron students, but all Southwest Oklahoma residents.

“This past fall, I was talking to my neighbor, who is on the board of directors for the Museum of the Great Plains,” Dr. Dunn said. “He was talking about things the museum could get involved in. Once I told him about the mammoth, he was gung-ho.”

Dr. Dunn and a rotating group of volunteers spent five weekends over the fall excavating the find. Most of the remains that can be removed from the site have been brought to Cameron. Dr. Dunn believes there might be some pieces underneath the road, but he’s not sure how, or if, anyone would be able to get to them. In the meantime, Dr. Dunn has formed a class to study the mammoth and learn anything they can from the find.

“I’ve built a class around it with four students,” he said. “They are learning how to prepare the specimens and are learning how to prepare them for a presentation.”

Not much is currently known about the mammoth, except that it was very large and it didn’t die of an attack by another animal. Dr. Dunn believes the mammoth somehow floated down the creek. The position of the remains stumped him and his students, but he doesn’t believe it was scavenged.

“It was certainly larger than an Asian elephant,” Dr. Dunn said. “There are no teeth marks, or any evidence that it was attacked. We believe it somehow was carried down here by the creek.”

Each of the four students in the class are conducting side projects to help better understand the mammoth and the time in which it lived. Dr. Dunn hopes to learn if it was a Colombian mammoth or Imperial mammoth, what sex it was, what it was eating and other things in its habitat, like the humans that were living during the time. Heather Young, a Biology Senior, said studying the mammoth has been a wonderful educational experience.

“I’m learning a lot of different things in relation to this that don’t necessarily have anything to do with the mammoth, like setting up for a museum presentation,” she said. “This has been a great thing. There are far and few in between undergrad programs that give you the chance to work with a mammoth.”

Young became a Biology major two years ago, and the mammoth was something that certainly piqued her interest. She plans to graduate in May and barely squeezed in the time to work on the mammoth, but she never thought she’d get the chance to do so.

“We heard about this several years ago, and there just wasn’t the interest,” she said. “But we finally got the students together who wanted to do it, and we got the resources, and here we are. It’s been a fun experience”

Starting in April, the class findings will be on display at the Museum of the Great Plains.

Part of the objective of the class was to not only study the mammoth, but to put together an exhibit for the museum, along with a presentation that will be held in late April.

“We’re going to present our results in a presentation at the museum on April 24,” Dr. Dunn said. “We hope the public will come and join us. This has been a pleasant learning experience, and the class has really been an interesting study for us. We’re just glad we get to share it with everyone else.”

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