Steamboat Springs High School sophomore Mary White weighs fragments of plant fossils Tuesday during a biology class. Students in White’s class are analyzing soil samples from an archaeological site near Snowmass Village where mastodon skeletons were found.

Photo by Scott Franz

Steamboat Springs High School sophomore Mary White weighs fragments of plant fossils Tuesday during a biology class. Students in White’s class are analyzing soil samples from an archaeological site near Snowmass Village where mastodon skeletons were found.

Steamboat students picking prehistoric history from fossil-laden soil

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Chance Dickerson examines prehistoric bones through a magnifying glass Tuesday at Steamboat Springs High School.

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Alex Ballesteros examines prehistoric bone fragments through a loop Tuesday at Steamboat Springs High School.

— A heavy box of sediment that was taken from a fossil-laden reservoir near Snowmass Village is attracting a lot of attention in a Steamboat Springs High School science lab.

“The first day we started looking through the dirt, we really didn’t know what we were finding,” high school sophomore Mary White said Tuesday as she weighed a small pile of plant fossils that were sifted from a pile of dark sediment that extended 40 feet below the Ziegler Reservoir before it was unearthed. “But now we’re starting to really learn the difference between bones, plants and flint.”

The several pounds of sediment contains the remains of plants and animals that lived between 43,000 and 150,000 years ago and came from a site discovered to be the final resting place of Ice Age mammoths, mastodons, deer and bison. The box of sediment the high school received specifically encased a mastodon mandible.

“This is a huge find for the entire world, and these students are a part of it,” said Lucianne Myhre, who teaches a Students Engaged in Active Learning, or SEAL, class at the high school.

The Ziegler Reservoir site was opened to a team of Denver Museum of Nature and Science paleontologists after a bulldozer driver who was working to extend the reservoir uncovered the bones of a juvenile Columbian mammoth in October 2010. Thousands of fossils have been discovered and preserved at the site since.

As they sift, pluck and examine the bones they are finding in Charlie Leech’s classroom in Steamboat, about 20 students are helping the museum put together a more complete picture of what the ecosystem was like when the mammals died tens of thousands of years ago.

“It’s the beginning of a huge project,” Leech said as he helped students examine bone and flint fragments under loops and microscopes Tuesday. “It’s fun to see these students go from a textbook to a hands-on project like this.”

Students also are working to determine whether the pieces of flint they find could indicate humans also were present in Colorado 40,000 years ago, and whether liquefaction in the wake of an earthquake trapped the mastodons and buried them near the reservoir.

While their research might not fully answer those questions, Leech’s students still are cheering their discoveries that include salamander vertebrae, preserved plants and many other interesting artifacts.

The class started sifting the sediment through fine mesh in February, and it has been photographing and documenting all of its finds with a level of excitement and wonder that Leech said comes easily.

“It’s exciting when you find a bone,” student Alex Ballesteros said as he took a closer look at small fossil fragments inside a paper tray. “It’s just awesome trying to figure out what is what.”

To reach Scott Franz, call 970-871-4210 or email scottfranz@SteamboatToday.com

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