Mammoth Bones Spur WSU Professor's Big Goal

PULLMAN - When he is not teaching, Washington State University zoologist Carl Gustafson digs up mammoth bones in the fossil-rich soil of south-central Washington.

It's strictly volunteer work, which Gustafson performs for the love of it and to engage the public in the pre-history in their back yards.

Last summer's work in Richland yielded an unusually complete mammoth skeleton brought to Gustafson's attention by a Richland developer who discovered the jaw while removing a tree.

Much of the recovered skeleton is now at the WSU Anthropology Department's warehouse where Gustafson and his students are working to stabilize the fragile fossils.

When first uncovered, the bones were so unstable they could be cut with a thumbnail, said Gustafson. The fossils have since been loaded with preservatives to make them stable enough to move.

Recovered were one-third of the mammoth's back and rib bones, arm bones, jaws with teeth in place, a single tail vertebrae, part of a femur, miscellaneous bone fragments and one tusk.

For years, Gustafson has been digging up and collecting Washington's mammoths. Bones - "more than the university would like to have," he said - fill boxes and shelves inside the anthropology warehouse.

Discovered in mixed deposits dating to 13,000 years ago, the mammoth bones were likely deposited in the Pasco basin by slow-moving water in which icebergs floated toward the end of the last glacial age, Gustafson said.

Gustafson believes a large body of water may have existed in the Tri-Cities area.