A group of paleontologists have unearthed a treasure trove of ancient bones inside a Wyoming cave. Among the remains are bones that belong to ancient American horses, cheetahs, lions and bison. The excavation represents the first time the cave has been extensively investigated in over 30 years, with the site now estimated to contain the remains of thousands of ancient animals that became trapped or killed.
The study was part of a two-week dig, performed by researchers with the Des Moines University. Late last month, dozens of researchers and expert spelunkers descended upon the cave, situated at the base of the Bighorn Mountains, to conduct the most extensive excavation since the cave’s discovery in the 1970s.
The cave is only accessible through a 15-foot-wide hole at the surface that is particularly difficult to spot, unless stood up close to it. As a consequence, over the millennia, thousands of animals have unwittingly fallen in through the cave’s entrance. Immediately beyond the cave’s entry point is an 80-foot sheer drop; although this has now been covered with a grate to prevent animals from plummeting to their deaths.
The animal bones, some of which may be around 100,000 years old, became entombed in sediment that is thought to have a depth of around 30 feet. The research team recently excavated the fossilized remains and poured through the ancient bone fragments to determine which remains are the best; the finest specimens will be distributed to universities throughout the United States and Australia.
It’s hoped the conditions of the Wyoming cave may have aided in preserving the genetic material of some of the now-extinct creatures. The humidity and cool temperatures proved ideal for ensuring the DNA remained intact over such an extensive period, at a time when enormous ice sheets dotted much of the North American terrain. For example, the researchers suspect they have collected bones that still have collagen attached.
According to paleontologist Julie Meachen, among the discoveries made, so far, are the bones of ancient cheetahs, North American lions, short-faced bears, bison, rodents and a gray wolf. Microfossils from birds, snakes and lizards were also unearthed, but these fragments have yet to be properly investigated or counted.
Brent Breithaupt, one of the first researchers to repel into the Natural Cave Trap, recently explained that the team was looking forward to learning more about the retrieved remains. “It’s an incredible site. It definitely is one of the most significant sites that BLM [U.S. Bureau of Land Management] manages and it will provide very, very important information,” he added.
Ultimately, the researchers hope to unlock new information about the diets and genetic diversity of some of the mysterious creatures that died during the Ice Age extinction, over 10,000 years ago.