OSKALOOSA, Iowa - It's not every day you find the remains of a woolly mammoth in your backyard. Finding the remains of three -- that's even more rare.
That's exactly what happened in 2010 when a farmer found some rather large bones in a ravine on his land. A year later, the Mahaska County Conservation Board had people out there digging. Over the past four years, naturalists have discovered a site truly unique to the country.
"We've been looking for a site like this for 150 years," said Dave Brenzel, a naturalist working at the site. "The only site in the Midwest with multiple mammoths is pretty exciting stuff."
Laura DeCook, a naturalist with the Mahaska County Conservation Board, says what they found last week has made this four-year excavation feel like a brand-new discovery.
"Last week we uncovered some awesome bones - very good condition, and a nice size to them," she said. "We found a rib and a vertebrae very close together, and not far from that is a piece of ivory tusk from a mammoth."
It's a welcome sight after spending the last year finding almost nothing at all.
"We had a couple of easy years when the bones - you couldn't put a shovel in the ground without finding a new bone. And last year was a hard slog," Brenzel said. "We plowed through a lot of ground and all we were finding were fragments of bones, and nothing very significant. Right in the same area we're digging now. And as it turns out, six inches below where we were digging, it looks like there's a whole new layer of bones! And that's exciting stuff."
Brenzel says this one discovery will leave a large footprint on the scientific community worldwide.
"This will be fodder for research for the next ten years," he said. "There's a lot we're pulling out of this site - a lot of questions we're raising that's going to have to be answered by other researchers in the future."
The mammoths are the cool part - that's for sure, DeCook says. But it's what scientists are learning about Iowa as a result of these mammoth bones that excites her.
"This site is so exciting, because we're learning about Iowa's history, we're learning about what Iowa used to be like," she said. "We have taken soil samples that have shown evidence of fir, spruce, and large trees, which indicate arboreal forest. The closest arboreal forest we have today would be in the northern states - Minnesota area, and up into Canada. So Iowa used to look totally different then."
This is the last summer scientists have agreed to spend on the farmer's land. To find some large bones right now toward the end of a four-year project makes scientists like DeCook and Brenzel feel accomplished.
"A lot of people have this dream of digging up dinosaurs, or mammoths," DeCook says. "These mammoths aren't 65 million years ago like the dinosaurs, they're 13-14,000 years old. But, a chance to put history right here in your hands and discover them in an area right below your feet. It's fascinating."