What began as a mere invitation to the site of a potential mammoth has evolved into an unexpected whirlwind of information pointing to the past, present and future for Oklahoma State University.
The geography department in the College of Arts and Sciences is busier than ever as it anticipates funding for the artifact’s campus debut.
In July 2013, natural gas company Access Midstream stumbled across the bones while drilling just outside Enid, Okla., and contacted the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, which confirmed the remains belonged to a mammoth. Survey member Lee Bement contacted the university for help.
Tom Cox, a first-year Ph.D. student at OSU who had previously worked with Bement, took over the dig site and included the data and overall experience in his master’s thesis. Cox had been working with OSU geographer Carlos Cordova on reconstructing the environments of paleo-mammoth remains in the Great Plains region. Bement gave Cox the chance to work with an untouched site, a rare opportunity for a graduate student, especially at OSU.
“What we thought was going to be this little thesis project has turned into something huge,” Cox says.
“I think the biggest thing I’ve wanted to see come out of this is to show people that geography isn’t just learning about dates, places and things. There is so much cool stuff that you can do in geography that people don’t even know about.”
After two months of weekend excavations, Cox had a nearly complete and surprisingly well-preserved mammoth, referred to as the Helena or Enid mammoth. Volunteers, which included OSU students and faculty, were recruited for the excavation through word of mouth. The bones were donated to OSU by the site landowner, an OSU alumnus.
OSU’s involvement can be described as a matter of happenstance, says Dale Lightfoot, head of OSU’s geography department who has been involved in orchestrating the big picture. Everything happened at the just the right time; Lightfoot credits this to Cox’s and Cordova’s interest and expertise.
This project is extremely significant for OSU because the university doesn’t have a specialty that focuses on research involved with paleontology. OSU has only been able to take on this project because of Cordova’s experience with mineralized plant remains (phytoliths and fossil pollen) and Cox’s interests and skills.
Cordova specializes in geoarcheology, the application of earth sciences to archaeology, and paleo-ecology, the study of past ecosystems. He’s generally interested in ecosystems that existed in North America, particularly in the Great Plains, from the Pleistocene to the Holocene period, and how the climate, vegetation and animals have adapted or gone extinct, as well as the role humans and global climate played. For Cordova, the Helena mammoth excavation and data analysis serves as a data point that he can use for his broader project. With the Helena mammoth, Cordova conducted research similar to what he’s been gathering for North American plants, animals and soil for relating them to those of southern Africa.
Shawna Smith, a first-year geology graduate student, and Taylor Iberosi, a junior majoring in geography, worked with the remains in a campus lab. With the help of the Dean’s Excellence Fund, the two gained rare hands-on experience in the preservation and final construction of the Helena mammoth throughout the spring semester.
“I got an email from my adviser, who was looking for geography majors to volunteer for the dig,” Iberosi says. “I emailed her back asking if this was a real thing. She emailed me right after, assuring me that it was real, and I jumped on that opportunity like it was the last biscuit on the breakfast table.”
After receiving special training in proper preservation techniques from the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey, the two students began to preserve, puzzle and glue the bones back together. In addition, they photographed, sketched and measured the completed bones while documenting the lab process.
“Some important points I’m taking away from this experience are the scientific need for attention to detail and a new appreciation for extensive documentation that will serve me well in my future career,” Smith says.
Although the data analysis is complete and the remains safely stored, the story continues. Because of the lack of technology and certain expertise at OSU, Cox and Cordova have sent samples to labs and are patiently waiting for many answers regarding dates and specifics about the Helena mammoth that may determine the next chapter of its story — and that of OSU.
Cox and Cordova have their own ideas regarding the mammoth: Is it an Emperor or Columbian mammoth? How old is it? Male or female? What did it eat? What killed it? And there may be evidence of human involvement with the animal, but more will be known once the proper testing is completed. For example, the leg bones of the Helena mammoth were completely separated from the rest of the body, found in a separate area of the dig site.
“Hopefully, this is going to be a new area of research for OSU,” Cox says. The department hopes to secure funding and display plans for the mammoth in the fall, but until then, Cordova and Cox have bigger ideas.
“There is more than just this mammoth,” Cordova says. “It’s not only that mammoth. It’s all the mammoths that may have existed in that area and all the other ones we are looking at.”
Story By Shelly Holcomb