ES 767, Quaternary Geology with Dr. James Aber, Emporia State University
Final Project, Fall, 2006

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota

by Larry Kuss

Mammoth Site 1


The purpose of this project is to examine a fascinating location in South Dakota that has preserved the remains of wildlife that existed during the last ice age. The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota is believed to contain the skeletons of over fifty individual Columbian and woolly mammoths (Mammuthus) from the Pleistocene Period as well as that of the giant short-faced bear (Arctodus simus), camel (Camelops), llama, wolf, coyote and prairie dog. This region, representative of the Camelops faunal province, was also known for the American lion (Panthera atrox).

Mammoth Site 2
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Over 26,000 years ago, large Columbian and woolly mammoths were trapped and died in a spring-fed pond near what is now the southwest edge of Hot Springs, South Dakota. The pond was formed from a sixty-foot deep sinkhole that filled with warm artesian spring water. As animals came to drink, they could not escape from the steep-sided watering hole, and for over 700 years their remains collected with layer upon layer of preserving silt and sediments. In 1974, during the excavation for a housing development, bones were unearthed. Luckily, these remains were recognized by the construction crew as unique, and experts were contacted for further examination. These events are nicely animated at the following website; Mammoth Trap: The Motion Picture.

Now, the Mammoth Site is the world's largest Columbian mammoth exhibit and research center for Pleistocene studies. Dr. Larry Agenbroad was elected as the Mammoth Site Principal Investigator, and the site achieved nonprofit corporate status. One of the most unique characteristics of this site is that it is the only place that woolly mammoth and Columbian mammoth remains have been found together. The Columbian variety is believed to have roamed what is now the United States from around 130,000 to 11,000 years ago, weighed as much as eight tons and stood twelve feet tall at the shoulders. All the remains at the site are believed to be males, most less than middle age.

Mammoth Site 3

Badlands 1


This region of South Dakota is composed of Spearfish Shale overlying Minnelusa limestone. Approximately 26,000 years ago, a cavern in the limestone collapsed as well as the shale at the surface. This allowed a vertical shaft, or breccia pipe, to form. The resulting sixty-foot deep sinkhole, 120 by 150 feet across, was produced and subsequently filled with warm artesian spring water percolating up through the limestone. This type of sinkhole is called "karst" after a region in Italy. As the animals were trapped and died from starvation and drowning, the silt and mud preserved some of their remains from decay, but petrification did not occur, resulting in fragile fossilization. Once the sinkhole filled with sediments, the spring changed course to join a lower portion of Fall River, allowing the pond sediments to remain intact. As thousands of years passed, the "hardened mud plug" became a hill as the surrounding soft red Spearfish Shale eroded away. To the east and northeast one can find the vast Badlands National Park, where wind and rain continue to erode away soft layers of sand, silt, clay and volcanic ash. This is a great location to observe the countless layers that comprise this southwestern region of South Dakota.(See previous photo)

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Petrified Wood Park 1


The Petrified Wood Park in Lemmon, South Dakota stands as a testament to the early environment of the region. Known for mixed conifer and deciduous forest in the distant past, this area is now somewhat arid, with much of the forest lands replaced with prairie grasses. The hundreds of structures comprising the park are constructed from petrified wood, dinosaur and mammoth bones from the surrounding lands.

Mt. Rushmore 3


The area in and around Rapid City, South Dakota is a virtual playground for those interested in geology and archaeology. The South Dakota School of Mines and Technology is located in Rapid City, with an excellent geology museum. They also have a fascinating display of Fairburn agates, the state gemstone found around South Dakota east of the Black Hills, originally discovered south of Rapid City in Fairburn. In nearby Hill City is the Black Hills Museum of Natural History, with excellent examples of T. rex skeletons. Adjacent to the museum is Everything Prehistoric, a gift shop with its own amazing museum display area, with a spectacular collection of dinosaur skeletons. Of course Mount Rushmore is a must see, pictured above. In addition to the sculpture, the geology behind the formation of the hill is worth examining.

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Antelope 2


Although the sight of mammoth herds must have been awe-inspiring, the region still supports an impressive collection of large North American mammals. The antelope(above) and the bison(below) are easy to spot on the open prairie so common in this part of the country. A wonderful place to observe bison is at Custer State Park, where they can be seen in large groups at close distance.

Bison 5


The Mammoth Site now sponsors a visiting scientist program that invites professionals from related areas of research to spend time at the site for continued study. The site also hosts summer internships, allowing students to help with the preparation and preservation of the tens of thousands of bones and other fossil materials that have been uncovered. Many of the mammoth skeletons are left in-situ, adding to the uniqueness of the site. Interns work in the lab and bonebed in addition to conducting tours of the facility.

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Mammoth Site 4

Asian Elephant of Thailand


There has been much speculation as to the feasibility of resurrecting the mammoths by uniting the DNA extracted from the well-preserved frozen remains of a mammoth with the sterilized egg cell from a modern-day Asian elephant, the mammoth's closest living relative. This concept gained momentum when remains were extracted from Siberian permafrost in 1999, but hopes were crushed when little viable tissue was available for the procedure. Even if enough DNA were made available, the procedure is prone to failure at every step, and scientists believe we are a long way away from perfecting such a controversial, monumental experiment. More likely, any DNA that has survived this long will not be intact, but will be found in the form of countless small fragments, virtually useless for cloning. Such large, complex molecules do not fare well over long periods of time.(Sorry to disappoint the "Jurassic Park" fans.) Even if the technical steps leading to the production of a mammoth embryo were possible, the modern Asian elephant might not be adequate in size or ability to bring the developing animal to term. However, if cloning proves too difficult to accomplish, there is also the possibility of using frozen sperm to inseminate a modern Asian elephant. If this were successful, years of selective breeding could produce a creature that is, more or less, a full-blooded mammoth. So little is known of the life of extinct creatures that bringing one into the world would most likely present a myriad of complications, both proposed and not yet anticipated, that could be disastrous. Opinions are mixed as to whether Man should even try. Some might say that if nature has selected against a species, Man should not interfere. However, one thing is certain. Science and "progress" stop for no one. There will be scientists trying to accomplish the task of bringing mammoths back to the living, and it is inevitable that they will eventually succeed.


The Mammoth Site of South Dakota is a wondrously unique treasure. It was unfortunate for the many magnificent creatures who unwillingly gave their lives for this research center and tourist attraction, but it is Man's good fortune that it was discovered and preserved rather than used as the foundation for a housing project. One can only wonder how many similar sites were never recognized, only to be lost forever beneath the modern world.


John Paul Gries; Roadside Geology of South Dakota; 2003;

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota;

South Dakota: Mammoth Site;

Thisland/South Dakota: Mammoth Site - Field Guide;

Will Mammoths Walk Again?;

Cloning A Mammoth;

Dr. Larry D. Agenbroad, Resurrecting Extinct Megafauna;

What Killed The Mammoths?;

Mammoth Trap: The Motion Picture;

South Dakota Ice Age Mammals;

The Pleistocene;

Badlands National Park;

All Photos by Larry Kuss

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