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I am a Denver-based writer, travel lover, and author of The Drive North and Destination Paranormal. I have several other books in the works, including fiction.

Learning About Mammoths and Mastodons at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Walking into Mammoths and Mastodons

Walking into Mammoths and Mastodons

Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age opened this past weekend at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. I stopped in to check it out, the little boy inside me all excited from my days playing in my sandbox with my dinosaurs and other toys. I used to create a world for them, set it all up nice and neat, and then flood it with the garden hose. In a way, that’s kind of what happened with a lot of the mammoths and mastodons, many of them died stuck in swampy land. That ended up preserving many of their bones, and, in one case in Russia, a complete baby woolly mammoth – Lyuba.

Yeah, I learned that at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. And in turn, I understood what I was doing with my dino figures as a kid was all part of nature’s greater plan for the mammoths and mastodons. Well, sort of; I was going for a bit more apocalyptic destruction in my small four by three foot world in the backyard.

That's one big leg bone!

That’s one big leg bone!

Lots can be learned at the museum’s Mammoths and Mastodons special exhibition, which is open until the end of May, and not just in relation to your childhood sandbox. There are a lot of great hands-on exhibits for both kids and adults, videos to watch, fossils to check out, and information on the two species – did you know 50,000 years actually separated the time when they each inhabited the earth? – and how they relate to today’s elephants, something which really surprised me.

The family tree

The family tree

By the basic look of the animals, I would have assumed elephants today would be more closely related to yesterday’s mastodons. But it just ain’t so, and an interesting sort of family tree shows how the relation to mastodons is so much further back for elephants than that of the woolly mammoth. Other comparisons and similarities, like that of their teeth, are also shown, giving a greater perspective on just how different the mastodons are compared to mammoths and elephants.

The different teeth, mastodon on the left and elephant on the right

The different teeth, mastodon on the left and elephant on the right

Mastodon skeleton

Mastodon skeleton

A couple of years ago in the mountains on the west side of Colorado, in a small town near Aspen, which is called Snowmass, a large group of fossils were discovered during the construction of a reservoir. One of the things which excited me so much about the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Mammoths and Mastodons was that some of those bones discovered were finally going to be on display. And as I walked through the exhibit, stopping to read all of the different displays, I continually looked to see if it came from Colorado; was it part of the Snowmass dig?

Vertebrae discovered in Colorado

Vertebrae discovered in Colorado

Unfortunately, very little from Snowmass is on display. Why? Quite simply because scientists have not had enough time to go through all of the bones; it has only been a couple of years, and hundreds of items were uncovered and removed. I wish there had been more, and that was my one small disappointment, but it was also tempered by the fantastic fossil collection the museum has on permanent display, as well as the room where I could watch the archaeologists actually work on and clean up the bones.

Mammoth skull

Mammoth skull

A huge example of that is also part of Mammoths and Mastodons, and it was quite the surprise. I knew Colorado was once covered in a vast inland sea, and that now it was home to thousands of fossils buried in the soil. I even knew that it extended from beyond the far western part of the state with the Dinosaur National Monument and the dig in Snowmass, all the way over to the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains here in Denver. Heck, I even knew there were some found down in the southeastern part of Colorado and northeastern New Mexico. I had traveled there to see their footprints. But I never knew their range continued on up into northeastern Colorado.

As I stepped to the end of the exhibition, I was stunned to learn this, to see a pair of archaeologists actually working on a preserved fossil from up near the little town of Holyoke. It was fantastic, too, because, while you can wave hello through the glass to the others working in the permanent fossil collection, these scientists actually engage visitors in discussion, talking about what they’re doing, how they do it, and all while they’re actually in the middle of it!

Working on a fossil

Working on a fossil

In the end, I left happy. I learned a lot of new things about mammoths and mastodons and how they’re related to elephants today, and was even able to talk with the people who clean off and take care of the bones, something which I never had the opportunity to do as a child. My sandbox may have been a lot of fun, the destruction I wreaked on my poor dinosaurs and other toys with the garden hose, but if such opportunities to see so many fossils, and to talk with the people working on them, were available like this when I was a child, who knows what career field I’d be in now. I might even be a real life Indiana Jones, just with dino bones!


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  1. My Guide to the Smithsonian Museums, Part Two | Jason's Travels - March 13, 2013

    […] After walking through the main entrance to the museum off the National Mall, pausing to take in the amazing rotunda lobby, I took a right and walked back in time a few million years. I was there, surrounded by dinosaurs of all kinds, something which to this day fascinates me. I guess it takes me back to the days of my sandbox where I flooded it and all of the dinosaurs I had set up inside, just as I talked about in my post on Mammoths and Mastodons at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. […]

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