The mammoth slowly being unearthed south of Kennewick is just a gateway to many scientific discoveries at the Coyote Canyon dig site.
Researchers have dug through more than 11 feet of dirt at the site at the Horse Heaven Hills site since excavation began five years ago. They have recovered more than 70 bones from the Columbian Mammoth, but also have found remnants of snakes, lizards, ground squirrels, birds and, possibly, even a camel.
Every clump of dirt taken from the hillside in the canyon is placed in white buckets and brought to a canopy-covered area a few yards away. There it goes through the “wet screen” process, where sediment is washed off. The remnants are taken to a picking lab in the two-story dig house atop a hill.
“Once you get it in the lab, it starts to look like a lizard jaw or rodent jaw or beetle wing,” said Bax Barton, director of research at the site. “You have the environmental record for the Tri-Cities for the past, say, 20,000 years.”
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Researchers have learned that the Mid-Columbia went through a particularly hot period around 9,000 years ago, said Barton, a research associate in the paleontology division at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
That is evident by a lack of larger rodents like ground squirrels from that time period, with only small rodents such as field and deer mice found. The larger animals likely had to go to cooler areas to survive.
“We think of it as pretty inhospitable anyway, but 9,000 years ago, it was even hotter than it is now,” Barton said.
The researchers are trying to target the area’s entire environmental context with their excavation. But the 365 people who came out for Saturday’s Dig It! open house event at Coyote Canyon were mostly interested in the Columbian Mammoth.
Casie Davidson of Richland, a Pacific Northwest National Laboratory researcher, was pleased to get to take her son Finn, 6, on a tour of the excavation site Saturday and show him that science doesn’t just happen in museums.
“It’s happening not very far from the house,” she said. “It’s really cool to just get out here and see the work they are doing.”
Researchers recently announced that a study of the mammoth’s lower jaw with one fairly complete tooth showed it to be about 40 years old when it died about 17,450 years ago.
Scientists also believe its carcass was washed to the current resting place, which sits at an elevation of 1,060 feet, in the Ice Age Floods that reached about 1,250 feet.
The McNary pool of the Columbia River now sits at an elevation of 340 feet.
There is some disagreement about where the mammoth, which likely stood 10 to 13 feet tall at the shoulder, came from. But its carcass is thought to have washed down from somewhere between present-day Tri-Cities and Spokane.
On Saturday, researchers lifted out their first mammoth bone of the 2015 season, a front rib bone. George Last, a geologist with PNNL, said it will help them remove a more crucial piece — the animal’s scapula, or shoulder blade.
“It’s a bit like pick-up sticks, you have to figure out which bone comes out in what order,” he said. “You don’t ever take any bones out until they’re freed up and ready to come out.”
They gave the bone a number and placed it on a tray so it can be transported to the dig house, where it will be cleaned, preserved and stored.
Their goal for this year is to excavate the bones that are now above ground, Barton said. That could mean visitors who tour the site next year might not see any bones.
Researchers initially thought that it might take five to seven years to completely remove the mammoth, Barton said. But because it has become so popular with the community, they could keep the excavation going for 15 years.
The site has been much easier to dig than one at the Frenchman Hills in Grant County, Last said. They are given time to do what they need at Coyote Canyon, where the other site is on a tight schedule because landowners need to grow alfalfa.
“The landowner here has just been fantastic from the standpoint of being able to do what needs to be done,” he said.
The Coyote Canyon Mammoth Site is seeking volunteers, as well as student interns, to help with its excavation. Visit www.coyotecanyonmammothsite.org for more information.