Persistence Cave: A rich resource for paleontological research

Caves whisper exploration and discovery.

Anyone who has ever set foot in a cave of any size cannot help but wonder what lies beyond, what lurks in the crevices, the darkness.  Stepping into a cave is stepping into the entrance of mystery just waiting to be revealed.  In a world that has been largely tamed to fit the human species, there are few spaces that still hold an element of danger.  These unknown spaces beckon to the adventurous: “Explore me!” And who wouldn’t answer that call?

Me, that’s who. I am perfectly happy learning about the discoveries in caves from other people, thank you very much.

For people like me, Twitter and blogs have provided tantalizing glimpses of such explorations the world over.  And one of the more fascinating adventures has taken place at Persistence Cave, just one cave of many at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

“Wind Cave National Park is full of fossils. Almost everywhere you go there’s going to be fossils: in the cave and at the surface. So Wind Cave National Park actually has [perhaps] 30-40 fossil sites.”

PhD student Jeff Martin explained more about the work he and his colleagues conducted there last season as he and his wife were literally driving to Texas to begin a new chapter in their lives. He was in the moving truck; his wife was in the jeep ahead.  Jeff and I had been in touch by email from time-to-time over the past year. As luck would have it, and thanks to his seemingly unending generosity, the time to discuss Persistence Cave by phone was while he was on the open road.

Wind Cave—as we know it now—was named because of the air that blows through an opening within.  It was considered a sacred place to the Native Americans long before settlers knew of its existence.  The Lakota people refer to the Black Hills (where Wind Cave is located) as ‘He Sapa’, (although it is listed as ‘Paha Sapa‘ on the Wind Cave National Park site).  Eventually, in 1903, it became the 8th National Park, but the first one to center around a cave.

Persistence Cave, a much smaller and less-explored cave in the park, was discovered by accident by Marc Ohms, spelunker and physical science technician for the park, in 2004.  His initial foray into the cave was brief: moving a cap rock, peering inside, seeing a rattlesnake, and deftly removing himself from the opening.

But its value as a fossil site was discovered thanks to another member of the park.

“Rod Horrocks, Wind Cave National Park Physical Scientist, in 2013, collected some sediment for preliminary analysis to see whether the site is paleontologically productive,” Jeff explained by email earlier.

It was, and this analysis is what eventually brought several scientists from diverse locations together.

Rod Horrocks sent the material to Dr. Jim Mead, Persistence Cave Project Leader, then at East Tennessee State University, where Jeff was a Master’s student at the time.  Jeff eventually moved to the University of Maine for his PhD, where Dr. Jacquelyn Gill was his advisor.

Sharon Holte, PhD Candidate at the University of Florida, was also a previous Master’s student of Jim’s, as well as Dr. Chris Jass at the Royal Alberta Museum,” wrote Jeff, explaining the connections between the Persistence Cave teammates. “He knows that we each excel in different aspects of vertebrate paleontology, and he invited each of us to collaborate on [and] bring our expertise into the research project. I brought Dr. Gill with me to the Black Hills to see the cave and to learn how a paleontological excavation is usually conducted. She brings a different set of skills related to paleoecology and palynology.”

Also on the team are undergraduate Chason Frost from the University of Maine who studies horticulture.  His skills and those of Dr. Gill help the group understand that fossil plants and pollen found in the cave.

Sharon Holte, aside from being one of the three principal spelunkers in this dig, is in charge of educational components.  Chris Bell at the University of Texas Austin studies the fossil rodents; Dr. Chris Jass and Dr. Jim Mead study fossil rodents as well, but include fossil snakes.

“Each person has their role,” he said, “their own ecological-niche, if you will.”

And Jeff?  He is the “bison guy.”

“My PhD research and dissertation focuses on bison body size adaptation to climate change over the past 40,000 years and how does that evolutionary legacy influence the bison we ranch today,” he wrote before he graduated this past Spring. “To answer this, I am using Persistence Cave and other fossil sites in Wind Cave National Park boundaries to geographically isolate my variation to only local animals.”

Wind Cave National Park, currently home to 400+ extant bison, offers information on both fossil bison and their living descendants.

 

EPSON DSC picture
EPSON DSC picture; bison at Wind Cave National Park, public domain from the National Park Service

 

“Collectively, we (Jacquelyn, Chason, and I) will then also look at the pollen grains and macro-botanicals preserved in the sediment to reconstruct the paleoecology and paleoclimate of the Black Hills through the last 11,000+ years to today. This is [to understand] the climate and ecology the bison were living in at these times.”

But let’s get back to the cave itself.

Below is an image of Natural Trap Cave (another exciting fossil cave dig in Wyoming; photo from myfossil.org):

 

Natural Trap Cave from myfossil.org

 

Compare that to an image of Persistence Cave from the top looking in (photo: Chason Frost as posted on Jeff Martin’s blog here):

 

Photo by Chason Frost - Persistence Cave entrance from Jeff's blog

 

 

 

And one of Sharon Holte peering out:

 

CB - SHolte peering out of cave

 

 

Finally, below is an image from the Rapid City Journal of “a tight spot in Wind Cave” (photo: National Park Service):

Marc Ohms WCNP National Park Service

 

When I asked about how this image compares to the space within Persistence Cave, I was surprised by Jeff’s email response.

“The picture above is much larger than the cave we are working in,” he described of the 2015 dig.  “The cave is very narrow and only fits one person’s shoulder width and up to 1.5 shoulder widths in places. The vertical height is similar to the above photo though.”

“I’m a broad shouldered fella’ and very, very tall,” he continued by phone recently. “The space in there to turn around is not quite enough for me, so I’d have to climb in and then climb backwards out.”

“Chris Jass and I are both the exact same height. Chris is a far more experienced spelunker, and even Chris wasn’t going in there.”

Sharon Holte, Chason Frost and Jim Mead were the principal spelunkers for the site.  Only one person could be in the cave at a time, and their only source of light came from a headlamp.  Trowels, buckets and ropes: their only tools.

 

CB - Sharon Holte important gear


“I thanked them endlessly, and I still thank them for all the work they were doing down in there,” Jeff said of his three colleagues. (A video of Sharon’s work in the cave can be found here.)

Work involved taking chunks of sediment in buckets out of the cave, tagging it, labeling the information (where that sediment appeared on the appropriate grid, at what depth, etc.), bagging that sediment, and then sending it down—by zipline, of all things!—to the truck below, where it could be taken to be screenwashed by other team members. (You can see a video of that process here, on Jeff’s blog.)

 

CB - screenwashing for microfossils

Screenshot of tweet during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig

 

Their fossil discoveries have been diverse. Jeff wrote that “[a] camelid, (the species is unknown at this time), has been an extraordinary find. We have 5 different kinds of snakes and at least 5 different species of bats. [A] pika is also an intriguing find.”

 

 

CB - Jim Mead and snakes

CB - fossils found

 

CB - snake fossil

 

CB - toe bone and Jeff Martin

 

CB - Jeff Martins favorite bone found at that point

Screenshots of some of the many tweets during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig

 

“One of the fun things that we ran across was a ton of Ponderosa pine needles,” he mused later by phone. “That’s the primary tree out there now.  Today, they’re mostly a two-needle bundle. In the past, it seems as though they were a three-needle bundle. And we don’t know exactly what that means yet.  So we’re trying to figure out if that means anything at all; if it’s a genetic difference; or if it truly is an environmental difference that it’s responding to.”

 

CB - Twitter conversation about plants

Screenshots of some of the many tweets during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig; the scientists involved in this dig didn’t just conduct research, they also conducted outreach to the larger public through social media.

 

 

Work did not continue as expected on the site this year for a number of reasons, but it’s not over yet.  Studies on the fossils continue at the University of Maine (pollen and plants); the bison fossils have travelled with Jeff to Texas A&M University where he is now in wildlife sciences; and the rest of the fossils are housed at The Mammoth Site, where Dr. Jim Mead is currently Chief Scientist and Director.

The Mammoth Site is another major connection between many of the team members, as they have each “worked [there] at some point…over the last 40 years.”

As many know, that site is a paleontological (and proboscidean!) goldmine turned museum, thanks to the work of many, including the late Dr. Larry Agenbroad.  Over 60 mammoth fossils have been discovered there to-date, among other fossil species.

Bonebed at The Mammoth Site

Image of the bonebed at The Mammoth Site where excavations continue to this day

 

“He was probably THE reason that I got into the School of Mines [as an undergrad] and was also the reason I got into paleontology,” Jeff said of Dr. Agenbroad.

“I’m not alone,” he continued. “There are several of us that are like that.  We all stem from Larry.”

The reverence in his voice was not difficult for me to understand.

Jeff’s introduction to this paleontologist began when he was much younger, through the 2000 documentary “Raising the Mammoth.” The film focuses on the Jarkov mammoth, and Bernard Buigues’ attempts to excavate it.  The team Buigues calls upon to help include some giants of proboscidean research: Dick Mol and Larry Agenbroad.

A year or so after seeing that film, Jeff’s family traveled to The Mammoth Site.  It was winter in South Dakota, and, he said, his family basically had “the run of the whole place.”  With a graciousness I am sure permeates everyone who works at that site, one of the interpreters (‘docents’) offered to bring Dr. Agenbroad out to meet them.

“There’s 8-year-old me that’s just giddy with joy to be able to meet one of my idols,” Jeff shared with no small amount of enthusiasm. “And then he said, ‘You’re a little bit too young to work for me. Come back when you’re older.’”

“So that’s exactly what I did. I worked for him in [the summers of] 2007 at the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site and  2008 and 2009 at the Mammoth Site as an intern while I was at the School of Mines.”

Dr. Agenbroad passed away two years ago, followed by his wife, Wanda, a month later.  This saddened me as someone who did not know him closely; I could only imagine how this affected Jeff, who had.

“I’ve made my peace with it,” he acknowledged, and then said something that truly moved me: “I have several things that Jim [Mead] gave me…and one of them is a pocketknife that I carry on me every single day. One of the same pocketknives that Larry carried on him every single day. So I’ve got Larry with me, right now, as a matter of fact.”

Jeff and his colleagues hope to resume work at Persistence Cave next year.

As we discussed some of the findings from last year’s dig, he said, “The oldest date right now at Persistence Cave is at 39,000 and the youngest date is at 3,200.  We have some 37,000 years of deposits with bison throughout. And we also have [modern-day] bison living at the surface!”

Jeff’s research, both of Persistence Cave and of Project Bison, underscore his passion for this animal, as well as the desire to understand its ecological significance.

“I’m looking at both the fossil record and looking at their body size, using the calcaneum [heel bone] as the proxy for body mass. And then also comparing that to modern bison that have just recently passed away within the past 1-3 years.  That’s what I was doing this past summer: going to carcass sites and measuring their calcanea. The unique thing about Wind Cave is that they have almost every single animal microchipped. So they can track this animal throughout its life. On top of that, they bring them in once a year and weigh them. So now we have a known mass of these animals and now a known measurement, because I measured some of their calcanea.

“I’ve got some [fossil bison calcaneal] measurements that go up to 180 millimeters, and I also have Bison bison today that the longest that I’ll find are 130 millimeters.  So quite a body size change in between the fossil and modern.”

Jeff presented some of his research at last year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting in Dallas.

Describing the results, he explained, “As it gets colder, bison get bigger.  As temperatures are increasing, bison get smaller. That has modern day application to the bison industry today. If we’ll have smaller bison with future global warming, we’re going to have to change our management options.”

As I pondered all of the information Jeff had shared with me about the work he and his colleagues had done, I couldn’t help but go back to the images of how small the cave actually is. If Wind Cave National Park has an abundance of fossil sites, why go through the trouble of trying to access this one?

“Surface localities often represent a one-time event,” he explained. “Persistence Cave represents many events over a long period of time. That’s the unique part of this locality.”

I will continue to enjoy their adventures from the safety of my computer!

 

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Jeff Martin: you were extraordinarily generous with your time and responses to my myriad questions.  Likewise, I am in awe of how open you were with your experiences.  For being willing to share all of this, I am truly grateful.  It was an honor and a pleasure connecting with you!

When #CaveBison starts up again, you can be sure it will be on Twitter!  Follow these scientists:

@BisonJeff

@JacquelynGill

@SharonHolte

@Pocket_Botanist

@MammothSite

 

You can follow Jeff’s research here and here

Jacquelyn Gill is one of three hosts of the podcast, Warm Regards, which discusses climate change.

 

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Boston Archeology Fair – Spotlight: Alan Leveillee

It is not hard to spot the enthusiasm in Alan Leveillee’s eyes when he talks about archeology.   Speaking with him at the AIA-MOS Archaeology Fair, I was struck by his warmth and easy-going manner, and I had to remind myself not to monopolize his time as he discussed some of his experiences in the field.

Alan explained that, although he does some teaching at Roger Williams University, he works largely in “cultural resource management” at a company called PAL (the Public Archaeological Laboratory) in Rhode Island.  There, he is senior archeologist and principal investigator.

As discussed in a previous post, “cultural resource management” refers to the work an archeologist does researching a site before any construction or development can begin.  If any archeological resources are found, the archeologist is there to determine how best to preserve those resources.

Alan was researching a site in Millbury, MA when he discovered a Native American cremation site.  This discovery lead to his book in 2002, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site.

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1.     You mentioned discovering an archeological site (a Native American cremation site) at Blackstone River in Millbury.  Can you explain how you determined that it was a cremation site?

We determined it was a cremation because of thousands of fragments of calcined (burned to the point of a chalky-white appearance) bone- both human and animal.  There were also artifacts included as burial offerings.

2.      Were you able to tell when this site was used?

The site was used by multiple generations of Native Americans between 2,800 and 3,800 years ago.  It was also recognized as a burial ground by subsequent Native American peoples in the Woodland Period, approximately 1,500 years ago.

3.      Do you know what Native American tribes used this site?  Or do you have theories on this?

They were the ancestors of today’s Wampanoag, Nipmuck, and Narragansett peoples.

4.      Have you participated in the Archeology Fair at the Boston Museum before?

Yes, there have been a total of seven fairs- I’ve had the pleasure of participating in all of them.

5.      What do you enjoy most about being an archeologist?

I work with great colleagues at PAL, get to teach a bit, and attend public events like the Museum of Science Archaeology Fair.  With a little academic background, imagination, and luck, I get to time travel- what’s not to enjoy about a career in doing that!!!

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For more information on Alan’s book regarding the cremation site, An Old Place, Safe and Quiet: A Blackstone River Valley Cremation Burial Site: http://www.abc-clio.com/product.aspx?id=65710

Public Archaeology Lab (PAL): http://palinc.com/

Many, many thanks to Alan Leveillee!!

Fossils AND Ghosts! Q&A with Todd Young

My first introduction with Big Bone Lick State Historic Park was through a book I found at my local library, Big Bone Lick: The Cradle of American Paleontology, by Stanley Hedeen.  In it, he describes two resources that brought animals (both prehistoric and contemporary) and people (Native Americans and those that followed) to that area.

A number of mammoth, mastodon and ground sloth fossils have been found there over the years.  This is a site I want to revisit on this blog, as some of the initial recorded discoveries were significant for paleontology as a whole.  Todd Young alludes to this in answer to question #6 below.

Todd Young, a Naturalist at the Park, generously (and so quickly!) responded to my questions about the Park and the upcoming event on October 24th that details paranormal sightings there.

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1. For those of us who are unable to attend, can you tell me more about what the program is like?
The program is a hybrid of the parks history coupled with paranormal claims at the park. Many people claim the history of the park has something to do with the paranormal activity reported at Big Bone. This program will accurately detail the history of people and events at the park. The paranormal evidence is being supplied  by paranormal groups and the general public who have investigated at the park.

2. Where does the information of paranormal activity come from?

The paranormal evidence comes from paranormal groups who have investigated here, the general public who has accompanied park sponsored investigations, and park staff.

3. Are any of the fossils at Big Bone Lick in situ?  How many fossils are currently on display at the park in general?

Bones that have been found outside on the park grounds are properly excavated and then stored so they are not taken. We only have a very limited display area so most of the bones and artifacts found at the park are in storage.

4. Do paleontologists continue to work here?
Yes. In 2008 the Cincinnati Museum Center conducted a paleontological dig to recover bison bones that had been found in the creek. Dr. Glenn Storrs, Dr. Bob Genheimer, and Dr. Stanley Hedeen led the dig and recovered several hundred bison bones from the site.

In 2012 the University of Cincinnati started profile work here at Big Bone to set the groundwork for a more comprehensive dig in the following years. In 2013, Dr. Ken Tankersley continued Paleontological and archaeological work at the park and recovered several hundred bones and bone fragments from many different species of animals including those from the last Ice Age.
 
Work will continue in 2014 from mid May until around the end of June and the general public is welcome to come and volunteer to help out.

5. Where are the fossils in relation to this map? http://parks.ky.gov/!userfiles/aParkBrochures/Maps/BigBoneLick.pdf

Fossils are generally buried well underground at the park and mostly are found in the low laying area around the creek.

6. Is there anything about the park (related to the fossils) that is not widely known?
There have been 5 holotypes found at Big Bone Lick. A holotype is a specimen of an animal that is first found in a certain location.

7. Are there any pictures of fossils from the park you’d like to include?
The best pictures you can find of fossil remains are from the recent dig. All of those pictures are on the UC field school Facebook page. You can find them at this URL location:  

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Big-Bone-Lick-Field-School-The-University-of-Cincinnati/421060577991318 

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For more information about Ghosts at Bone Lick on October 24th: http://parks.ky.gov/calendar/details/ghosts-of-big-bone/18858/

For more information about Big Bone Lick State Park: http://parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/big-bone-lick/

To volunteer for the dig in 2014, be sure to contact people at the park!  Here is the site’s contact page: http://parks.ky.gov/parks/historicsites/big-bone-lick/contact.aspx

Here is the contact info on the side of the page:
Phone: (859) 384-3522
Email: dean.henson@ky.gov
Park Manager: Dean Henson

Many, many thanks to Todd Young!!