Western Digs’ Top 5 Paleontology Stories of 2014

A red-headed mammoth, a cave piled high with ancient animal remains, and an unusual South Dakota dinosaur are all among the discoveries that shaped Western Digs’ most popular paleontology stories of 2014.

These striking finds were made at sites from the coast of California to the northern Plains.

Some were announced straight from the field. Others were years, even decades, in the making.

But together, this research adds crucial knowledge to our growing understanding of what life was like in the ancient American West.

Plus, it makes for some fascinating reading.

If you’ve read these articles all already, then thanks for making this list possible.

And if it’s all new to you, then welcome to the community of Western Digs.

In either case, let this be the starting point for your journey back through 2014 — and millions of years beyond!

5. Wyoming Cave Yields a Trove of Ice Age Fossils — and Ancient Animal DNA

The year of research into ancient life begins with a landmark excavation of one of North America’s most important — but underexplored — fossil sites.

Natural-Trap-Cave
Natural Trap Cave, a rare sinkhole in Wyoming, has ensnared countless animals over more than 100,000 years. (BLM)

A sudden hole in the ground in northern Wyoming opens up into a 26-meter-tall cavern that for hundreds of thousands of years has been collecting the carcasses of unsuspecting animals that stumbled into it.

Aptly named Natural Trap Cave, the site was first discovered in the 1970s, but it only saw its first full excavation this summer.

Paleontologists — who had to be trained in rappelling and climbing in order to access the site — descended into the pit to discover a deposit of fossils 10 meters deep, including specimens of giant camels, American lions, and dire wolves.

What’s more, they found that conditions in the cave have allowed the remains to be exquisitely preserved, which may make Natural Trap Cave a trove of ancient animal DNA.

Read on to see the site, learn what the experts found, and what’s ahead for Natural Trap Cave.

4. New Species of Giant Dinosaur From South Dakota ‘Fills Gap’ in America’s Fossil Record

Not far away, in the Black Hills of South Dakota, fossils of some distinctive dinosaur bones had been found that scientists say represent a huge new species to science.

What’s more, although the giant dino lived some 139 million years ago, it closely resembles a type of dinosaur that disappeared from North America’s fossil record at least 5 million years earlier.

The new species fills an important gap in the history of American dinosaurs, and suggests that its ancestors survived a key transition in America’s climatic past.

Western Digs’ exclusive coverage of the find won tens of thousands of readers on social media, and wound up on the home page of RealClearScience.

Read on to learn all about this surprising find.

 3. First Columbian Mammoth With Hair Discovered on California Farm

Scientists from across North America and Europe converged on the site of our next find: an artichoke farm in northern California, where farmers unearthed the world’s first fossil of a Columbian mammoth, with its hair still intact.

The site also turned up fossil remains of camel, horse, bison, and mastodon, but it was the mammoth that got the most attention, because of its state of preservation.

Soft tissue like hair is invaluable to paleo-biologists, because it can sometimes retain genetic information.

Read on to learn what the hair revealed — along with details about the lengths experts took to preserve it when they discovered it in the field.

2. Four-Tusked Walrus, New Whale and 19 Other Fossil Mammals Discovered at California Surf Spot

Imagine walking along your favorite beach and coming across the fossils of more than 20 huge prehistoric creatures.

That’s what one Bay Area surfer did after riding the waves at Half Moon Bay, about a half-hour drive south of San Francisco.

Semirostrum ceruttii porpoise
An artist’s reconstruction shows Semirostrum ceruttii, an ancient skimmer porpoise, that lived off the coast of California up to 5 million years ago. (Bobby Boessenecker)

The outcrop he discovered ultimately turned up evidence of a new species of whale, a walrus with four tusks, a relative of the recently extinct Chinese river dolphin, and a porpoise that paleontologists said had a “serious underbite.”

Together the fossils date back as much as 5 million years, providing rich new detail to our understanding of marine life in the Pliocene.

Read on to learn more about the new specimens, their unusual forms, and their evolutionary relationships to modern animals.

1. Allosaurus Died From Stegosaur Spike to the Crotch, Wyoming Fossil Shows

Finally, nothing gets your attention like a spike to the crotch. And that appears to be the unlucky fate met by an Allosaurus whose fossil was found in Wyoming.

An artist's rendering depicts a defensive strike from a stegosaur that paleontologists believe caused the fatal injury. "Fossil's of contemporaneous stegosaurs appear to have had unusually flexible and agile tails," Dr. Bakker said. (Courtesy Robert Bakker)
An artist’s rendering depicts a defensive strike from a stegosaur that paleontologists believe caused the fatal injury. “Fossil’s of contemporaneous stegosaurs appear to have had unusually flexible and agile tails,” Dr. Bakker said. (Courtesy Robert Bakker)

While studying the 150-million-year-old specimen in a museum, paleontologists discovered evidence of the painful wound, which appears to be unique in the fossil record: a deep stab to the pubis, delivered by the spiky tail of a stegosaur.

Tens of thousands of readers were drawn to our exclusive coverage of the find, including many users on Reddit who apparently thought it could’ve easily have been mistaken as a parody from The Onion.

But if you don’t believe it either, you can find all of the gory details here.

Now, I’d like to offer my sincere thanks to everyone who has passed through Western Digs this past year, whether you just read one story, or you became a member of our growing community.

I read the latest research, interview scientists, and describe their findings because I’m passionate about exploring science, history, and the American West, and I’m glad there are others out there who are as fascinated by it as I am.

If you have any questions, comments or ideas of what you’d like WD to cover, let me know in the contact form, or in the comments below.

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