Over the next few weeks, an incredibly pristine and nearly complete mammoth skeleton – uncovered in an Ellis County sand and gravel pit where it has lain for thousands of years – will be excavated and transported to its permanent home at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. Thanks to the generosity of the Wayne McEwen family, along with the leadership and support of Navarro College, the Mammuthus columbi specimen has been donated to the Perot Museum. Once catalogued into the Museum’s collections, the remarkable fossil will be preserved for scientific research and study for years to come.
“Having been found in our own backyard, this stunning example of a mammoth skeleton is especially meaningful because it’s a part of our heritage and the natural history of North Texas,” Colleen Walker, the Museum’s Eugene McDermott, chief executive officer, said. “The Perot Museum is truly grateful to the McEwen family for their enormous generosity in sharing this discovery with us and the world.”
This specimen of Mammuthus columbi (mam-MOOTH-us ka-LUM-bee), or Columbian mammoth, is estimated to be anywhere from 20,000 to 40,000 – maybe even 60,000 – years old. Navarro College biology professor and paleontologist Tom Vance, the project director for the specimen and an expert in the study of Texas mammoths, speculates it might be a female due to its diminutive size, the length of the tusks and the flare of the pelvic bones. The animal is believed to have been approximately 8-9 feet tall at the shoulder, or similar in size to a modern-day female Asian elephant. He notes that it is small compared to male mammoths from the Pleistocene Epoch, a time interval that began about 2.6 million years ago and lasted until only about 10,000 years ago.
The discovery was made in May of this year by McEwen’s son, Marty McEwen, and grandson, Ethan Beasley, during a typical day of work at the family business. Marty was operating an excavator and Ethan was driving a dump truck when Marty hit something unusual. Digging through the dirt, Ethan found a 6-foot tusk, slightly dinged from where the excavator’s bucket had made contact, and the two immediately called Wayne. The elder McEwen, thrilled and extremely curious about what had been unearthed on his property, showed a neighbor, Ken Wolaver, who told Vance about it. (Wolaver collects arrowheads and had taken classes under Vance.) After examining the tusk for himself, Vance rallied a team of Navarro College staff, students and volunteers – including Sunday Crider who worked as a liaison to the volunteers – to work the excavation site. The team has since spent hundreds of hours this summer under the hot sun meticulously removing millennia-old layers of sediment from the precious bones, using trowels and shovels, picks and brushes.
“The truth of the matter is, had Marty and Ethan not been excavating with such care, she (the mammoth) very well could have ended up as part of our Texas highway system,” noted Walker.
“We were very excited to discover the mammoth in our sand pit and realize it was 90 percent complete. One of the greatest joys in this whole thing was to meet and see the excitement on the faces of the many volunteers,” said McEwen. “We are very pleased to donate such a pristine skeleton to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. It needed to stay in North Texas where the local communities can enjoy it for a long time to come.”
Vance says it looks as if the animal fell on its left side and died. Even the untrained eye can see the components of the mostly articulated skeleton – the skull, lower jaw, various neck and back vertebrae, two shoulder blades, limbs, plus ribs and the pelvis. What‘s remarkable to him is that the bones look untouched, except for a few missing leg bones. He says, in most cases, the bones are far more scattered, often because the body was scavenged by animals or the bones were washed away by flowing water.
“I am extremely excited about this outstanding find. It’s very unique for North Central Texas,” said Vance. “What is so meaningful is to know that this animal walked through our backyard thousands of years ago.”
The next steps in the process will be overseen by Ron Tykoski, Ph.D., a paleontologist and fossil preparator at the Perot Museum. He has purchased 300 lbs. of plaster, 100 yards of burlap and dozens of two-by-fours to create the protective field jackets that will insure the bones arrive intact at the Museum. Water is also on the shopping list to keep the excavation team hydrated during the simmering August temperatures. Pending unforeseen weather, he expects the fossil to be safely in-house at a Museum collections facility sometime in September.
Tykoski explains that the donation of the skeleton to the Museum is crucial because scientists cannot officially study, write or publish anything about a scientific discovery until it has been cataloged into an accredited repository, like those at many universities and museums.
“The McEwens have made a huge contribution to science. This fossil is now part of the public trust, meaning scientists can describe it, study it, publish papers on it and display it from this time on,” said Tykoski. “Without their gift, this magnificent creature might have gone onto the auction block, never to be seen again. It would have been a huge loss for science and for the people of North Central Texas.”
During the next few years, the Perot Museum’s research and collections staff – under the direction of Anthony Fiorillo, Ph.D., curator of earth sciences – will catalog the bones and keep them stored securely and safely on a permanent basis.
As project director, Vance will control access to the specimen and determine who is allowed to conduct research and publish findings related to the specimen. From this research, questions regarding the animal’s sex, age, how it died and much more may be answered.
“It was quite an extraordinary experience to visit the site and see the skeleton in such beautiful condition in its final resting place,” noted Walker. “Very quickly, we all became quite smitten with her. We can’t wait to start preservation work so that the public can begin to enjoy her and fall in love with this discovery as we have.”
To protect the precious fossil during this transition process, the Museum and the McEwen family have chosen not to disclose the excavation site, which is located on private property. However, there’s still a way to learn more about the Mammuthus columbi. The public is invited to visit the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall at the Perot Museum, where a majestic, fully mounted male skeleton found in Dallas County is proudly on display. The Perot Museum is located at 2201 N. Field Street in Dallas.