Friday, October 19, 2007
Mammoth stirs Stockton
[Image from Penn State's Eberly College of Science]
Something neat happened last week. Construction workers in downtown Stockton drilled up a pile of mammoth bones. They were 80 feet down. In case you don't know where Stockton is, it's 80 miles east of San Francisco -- a Central Valley town on the deep fertile silt of the California delta.
Here's the fun part. The construction workers thought they had found human bones and called the coroner's office. Since the femur was as tall as the coroner, it could only have been a murdered NFL player. This is what happens when you watch CSI and its ilk instead of NOVA. But to their credit the workmen reported it, and for that they deserve a few "attaboys".
The news even fired up a few people who were sufficiently moved to comment. "Pissed off", for example, averred that "It's awesome to know that such huge beasts roamed locally." I agree.
My mammalogist friend Frank Iwen used to assist paleontologist John Dallman in prospecting for mammoth bones. When farmers called the University of Wisconsin's Zoological Museum about giant bones, these two packed their gear and headed for the field.
The best time of year for prospecting mammoth bones is in the spring when Wisconsin's deep glacial loess is moist and loose from freezing and thawing. But you need the right tool -- a smooth spring steel rod about an eight inch thick and 8 - 10 feet long. This you bore into the ground with the attached T-handle.
The chance of locating bones is slim at best, so you have to look for fragments in likely places like drainage ditches and cut banks. Then you start to plumb with the rod. The sound of the rod tapping the object tells you whether it is bone, rock or wood. They all sound different. You need patience and a discriminating ear.
One of my treasued belongings is a large shard of mammoth leg bone from a cobble bar on the Lawrence river, Kansas. All kinds of wonderful bones from ground sloth to giant beaver tumble from the eroded banks in the river's spring floods, and often settle on cobble bars. One blistering August day back in the 80s the family scoured that island like beagles, and I was the only one who couldn't find any bones. Embarrassing, but the girls let me curate the collection.
It was sheer luck that the foundation of the $110 million San Joaquin County administration office was over the old elephant. Wouldn't it be awesome to have a full size bronze mammoth before the entrance. We need reminders like that for folks who think the world started 6000 years ago.