An ancient death trap is now a paleontological treasure trove. The Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming has been the site of many deaths over the past 100,000 years. A mostly hidden hole in the ground is the only entrance to the cave. Tens of thousands of animals are thought to have fallen 80 feet to their deaths, and their bones are preserved on the cave floor.
Natural Trap Cave and its bounty of treasure is not a new discovery, but it has been left undisturbed for the past 30 years. Now, new technology and excavation methods are being used to explore the abundance of long extinct mammal fossils. The Federal Bureau of Land Management oversees access to the cave. In July, the BLM allowed an exclusive team of scientists and paleontologists to rappel to the bottom of the cave and remove valuable fossils. Bucket after bucket of dirt and remains were lifted from the cave floor.
The researchers hope to find fossil evidence of rare Pleistocene mammals such as the North American lion, short-faced bears and cheetahs. The possibility of discovering new animals or filling in the chain of evolution also exists. The Pleistocene Epoch began 1.8 million years ago and lasted until 11,700 years ago with the retreat of the last ice age. During the time the cave acted as a death trap, glaciers advanced and retreated over Wyoming a number of times. The paleontologists are expecting to find remains of the mammals that came to prominence during this time and whose descendants walk the earth today. This ancient death trap contains a paleontological treasure trove of fossils.
The Pleistocene Epoch is also when the first humans developed 2.3 million years ago, but not in the western hemisphere. People migrated from Asia to North America across Beringia approximately 15,000 years ago and spread south quickly. It is not unlikely that human bones could be found among the other fossils. If they are, the remains could offer clues about the first peoples in America.
The cave lacks vegetation or weathering which has preserved the bones, but scientists are hopeful that the high humidity and cool temperatures within the cave have also preserved genetic material from the animals. Although bones may tell paleontologists about the size, age and structure of the mammals, DNA can provide valuable evidence about where they fit in with the current ecosystem of North America. How did mammals develop from tiny, scurrying rodents to the creatures which dominate the earth?
The best finds are being shipped to universities across the United States to be studied as they are pulled up out of the cave. Some are traveling as far as the Australian Center for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide in Australia. Scientists are very eager to discover what they have been digging up from the cave’s sediment. “They’re very excited about the potential for what they’ve found,” stated Brent Breithaupt, paleontologist for the U.S. BLM. “It’s an incredible site. It definitely is one of the most significant sites that BLM manages and it will provide very, very important information,” he added.
This summer’s dig was more of an exploratory mission to get the lay of the land and some good samples. In the future, scientists hope for a more thorough and precise excavation. On Friday the team will replace and lock the heavy metal grill that keeps out today’s unsuspecting animals and human visitors.
The BLM has released some amazing photographs of the expedition into the cave, but the real excitement will come when the universities begin identifying the fossils and bones. After 30 years, scientists are anxious to discover the mysteries hidden at the bottom of the cave. Fortunately for them, an ancient death trap will yield a paleontological treasure trove.
By: Rebecca Savastio