One moment you’re a mammoth searching for some food, the next you’re one more victim of the Natural Trap Cave, a sink-hole-like cave in Wyoming filled with tens of thousands of fossil specimens from all the creatures who had fallen in but couldn’t get out again. Since the 1970s the cave has been covered by a metal grate to keep people and animals out, but now scientists are about to return for another look.
Natural Trap Cave‘s entrance is about 15 feet long and 12 feet wide, a deceptively small entrance to the expansive cavern beneath, a fissure about 85 feet deep and 120 feet wide. It is hidden in the foothills of the Big Horn Mountains behind sage and scrub brush–so well hidden animals from possibly as far back as 100,000 years ago may have been caught in the deceptive hole.
“It’s so cold all year long, that it has got just the perfect conditions for preserving DNA, in multiple species, in large numbers of individuals, which is not really found anywhere except Siberia and the Arctic,” explained Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen, who has been appointed to lead an international team of a dozen researchers and assistants into the Natural Trap Cave.
Alan Cooper, with the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide, will be attempting to retrieve fragments of mitochondrial DNA from the bones. When the cave was originally found such testing was not possible, but now he hopes to shed some light on how the animals who once fell into Natural Trap Cave fit in with the species we already know once roamed the area. They expect the cave to be filled with several now-extinct species such as American lions, cheetahs, mammoths, and short-faced bears. Maybe even some of these killer rabbits, for all we know.
Starting Monday, the team will be spending the next two weeks extracting as many fossils as possible. They will dig by lights powered by a generator at the surface. The National Science Foundation has also given grants to allow additional excavations in 2015 and 2016.
One of the main goals of the project is to learn more about the Pleistocene extinction, which wiped out dozens of species all of a sudden. Some of the proposed reasons for that extinction have been climate changes, and hunting by the first humans to arrive in northern North America.
The group of scientists will be camped out near the cave and will venture down into it several times a day for the two week period. “I don’t think it’s necessarily going to be easy,” said Meachen. “But I think we’re going to be pretty well prepared.”