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ISU Students Assist with Reclamation of 70,000-year-old Mammoth Fossil

Andy Taylor

Extracting the fossil remains of a 70,000-year-old-plus mammoth skull and tusk this fall was one of those Idaho State University research stories that went viral - and the project couldn't have occurred without the work done by ISU undergraduate and graduate students.

ISU Students Assist with Reclamation of 70,000-year-old Mammoth Fossil

The mammoth, which its founders named Rufus, was reclaimed by the Idaho State University Idaho Museum of Natural History (IMNH) for the Bureau of Reclamation at American Falls Reservoir in October.

"Fossils are rare and very fragile, so complete specimens are few and far between," said Jeff Castro, a senior from Twin Falls majoring in anthropology and history scheduled to graduate in December. "Dreams are made of this sort of project, and even careers. The discovery of Rufus has provided an excellent opportunity to expand my knowledge of Pleistocene Proboscideans, including recovering one from the field."

After the Bureau of Reclamation issued a press release about the project, it was soon news on Southeast Idaho television stations and it made the front page of the Idaho State Journal. Within a couple of days the story was picked up by wire services and appeared in newspapers across the state and country, and it appeared in a wide number of international news outlets and websites.

The next thing Mary Thompson, '98 and '05, ISU senior collection manager and lead contractor for the fossil recovery effort, knew, she was getting calls from a New Zealand radio station, who featured her on a live, hour-long interview. She fielded calls about fossil recovery from people around the globe, including from a Honduran man who was seeking her advice on fossils he'd recovered.

"It was crazy how much attention this project received, but we couldn't have completed the project without all the effort and expertise we had from our students," Thompson said. "Our students did most of the work on the project, and did it very professionally. The people from the Bureau of Reclamation working on the project remarked several times at how impressed they were with the work of our students."

ISU students who helped with the extraction and casting included Castro, Career Path Intern graduate students Travis Helm and Adam Clegg, CPI undergraduates student Kyle Hand and Casey Dooms, and a volunteer graduate student Josh Eppley.

The rest of the team consisted of Thompson and Sean Hess and Jenny Huang from the Bureau of Reclamation. The Bureau's David Walsh also photographed, shot video and publicized the project.

Dooms expressed his appreciation for participating on the project.

"This has been a critical undergraduate experience, which could contribute to a potential future employment or acceptance into a graduate program," said Dooms, a geosciences major at ISU. "I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to lead this dig. This truly is a unique experience, which the vast majority of undergraduates do not get."

The ISU team complimented Rufus for all the opportunities he is providing to expand knowledge and add to the IMNH's mammoth collections. Reconstructing and preparing the cranium is another interesting part of the project. There are only about six other mammoth assemblages within the museum's collections and none of them are complete. Rufus provides the opportunity for ISU researchers to discover something new.

The students said they were surprised by the amount of publicity the find received.

"I was, and am still, very surprised by the amount of publicity that we at the Museum and the Bureau of Reclamation received," Dooms said. "However, I also realize that paleontological discoveries of this type often receive a great deal of publicity. Moreover, being in the public eye like this has been a major part of the learning experience, which has helped me grow as a future professional paleontologist."

Castro noted another benefit of the publicity.

"This exposure has provided unforeseen opportunities to assist distant museums with their vertebrate fossil collections and I look forward to checking out some sloth bones from Honduras soon," Castro said.

"This is exactly the kind of experience that can't be taught in a classroom," Thompson said. "Our students get unique opportunities like this."

For more information on Rufus and his discovery, visit idahostateu.com/afmammoth.

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