The Snowmastodon Project

Quaternary Research
By: , and 



Studies of terrestrial biotic and environmental dynamics of the last interglacial period, Marine Oxygen Isotope Stage (MIS) 5, provide insight into the effects of long-term climate change on Pleistocene ecosystems. In North America, however, there are relatively few fossil sites that definitively date to MIS 5. Even fewer contain multiple ecosystem components (vertebrates, invertebrates, plants) that have been studied in detail, and none are located at high elevation. Thus, our view of North American ecosystems during MIS 5 is, at best, an incomplete composite view, and alpine ecosystems are entirely undocumented. The Ziegler Reservoir fossil site allows us to begin filling these gaps. Discovered on October 14, 2010 by a construction crew while enlarging a small reservoir near Snowmass Village, Colorado (USA), the site is situated high in the Rocky Mountains at an elevation of ~ 2705 m. Initial excavations exposed a series of stacked fossil ecosystems, including abundant faunal and floral components. Subsequent work revealed an exceptionally diverse biota composed of nearly 6000 large bones of late Pleistocene megafauna, including mastodons, mammoths, ground sloths, horses, camels, deer, bison, black bear, coyotes, and big horn sheep. This collection is complemented by more than 200 bones from at least 40 species of small animals including otters, muskrats, minks, rabbits, beavers, frogs, lizards, snakes, fish, and birds, and more than 20,000 salamander bones. Geomorphic evidence and multiple dating techniques show that the small, ridge-top basin containing the site was formed by a lateral lobe of a valley glacier that filled, and ultimately overtopped, the Snowmass Creek drainage during the Bull Lake glaciation (MIS 6). When the glacier receded, a lake that occupied the basin began to fill slowly with what is hypothesized to be eolian sediment and occasional input from slope failures of the impounding moraine. As sedimentation continued, the lake transformed first into a shallow pond, then a marsh, and later an alpine meadow. In all, the Ziegler Reservoir sedimentary record spans the time encompassed by the end of MIS 6, all of MIS 5 and MIS 4, and the earliest part of MIS 3. MIS 5e, which is considered to be the peak warmth of the last interglacial period, is especially well represented. Preservation of organic material at the Ziegler Reservoir fossil site is exceptional. Even after more than 100,000 years of burial, sedge and willow leaves were still green, mollusks and gastropods showed color, beetle parts remained iridescent, fossil conifer cones were intact, and an entire beach of 20-meter-long driftwood logs was found intact. The exquisite preservation allowed for detailed analysis of pollen, plant macrofossils, conifer cones, and fossil wood, as well as insects, chironomids, mollusks, ostracodes, and other invertebrates — all in addition to the spectacular faunal remains. This special volume of Quaternary Research represents a comprehensive scientific report of “The Snowmastodon Project,” as the investigations at the Ziegler Reservoir fossil site came to be known. Summarizing the work of scientists from more than 20 institutions, the volume details the environments in which the animals lived, provides insight into how they died, and forms the foundation of our understanding of alpine ecosystem dynamics during the last interglacial period in the Rocky Mountains.

Additional publication details

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title The Snowmastodon Project
Series title Quaternary Research
DOI 10.1016/j.yqres.2013.12.010
Volume 82
Issue 3
Year Published 2014
Language English
Publisher Elsevier
Contributing office(s) Geosciences and Environmental Change Science Center
Description 4 p.
Larger Work Type Article
Larger Work Subtype Journal Article
Larger Work Title Quaternary Research
First page 473
Last page 476
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N