Welcome Waco Mammoth National Monument as the 408th National Park

A mural of what the Columbian Mammoth herd may have looked like at Waco.  Photo from nps.gov
A mural of what the Columbian Mammoth herd may have looked like at Waco. Photo from nps.gov

Its amazing to think that less than one year ago, there were not any  national parks specifically dedicated to mammoth fossils – and now there are two!  The first is the Tule Springs Fossil Beds near Las Vegas, Nevada, which was established by Congress in December 2014.  The second is the newest unit of the National Park System, the Waco Mammoth National Monument, which was established by Presidential Proclamation under the Antiquities Act on July 10, 2015.  Prior to 2014 there were six national parks specifically dedicated to fossils in the name of the park, but all of them from eras predating the age of the mammoths:

By contrast,  mammoths lived  in North America during the Pleistocene time period, from about 2 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago.  Specifically, the mammoths at Tule Springs died approximately 250,000 years ago and the mammoths at Waco died approximately 68,000 years ago.   The mammoths at both sites are considered to be Columbian Mammoths, a species of mammoth that is related to the smaller, but more-famous, Wooly Mammoths that lived in Siberia and northern North America.  Likewise, both sites would predate the arrival of the first humans to the Americas, which different theories date as occuring anywhere between 12,000 years ago to as much as 40,000 years ago.

In addition to the age of their respective mammoth fossils being hundreds of thousands of years apart, two other things distinguish Waco Mammoth National Monument from Tule Springs National Monument and make them each unique in their own way.  First, Tule Springs is currently almost completely undeveloped.  It has no visitor center, and no displays of exposed fossils, whether in situ (still in the ground) or anywhere else.  Visiting it requires some hiking and some imagination. The second is that the Waco site preserves a nursery herd of mammoths – the only known such fossils of its kind in the United States.  This makes the fossils here especially valuable, as they tell us a great deal about how mammoths reproduced, raised their young, and how they lived with others.

The Waco Mammoth Site features displays of mammoth fossils still located in the ground.  Photo Credit: E. Wilson
The Waco Mammoth Site features displays of mammoth fossils still located in the ground. Photo Credit: E. Wilson

 

Although these are the first two national parks specifically dedicated to mammoth fossils, it turns out that mammoth fossils can be found as a secondary feature at a few other national parks.  Among the most notable is Channel Islands National Park.  Although most visitors to Channel Islands National Park, located off the cost of Los Angeles, California, either go for the scenery, or perhaps for activities like sea kayaking, hiking, or whale watching, 40,000 years ago the Channel Islands were home to the Pygmy Mammoth, a species found nowhere else in the world.

There are also two other national parks that are dedicated to the archeology of the peoples who hunted mammoths.   Bering Land Bridge National Preserve is in one of the remotest corners of western Alaska, and preserves the archeological legacy of the first American settlers who likely followed herds of wooly mammoths across the Bering Land Bridge at the end of the last ice age.   The second is Alibates Flint Quarries National Monument in the panhandle of north Texas, where some of the earliest Americans obtained flint for their spearheads with which to hunt the Columbian Mammoths found at Waco and at Tule Springs.  Naturally, the presence of humans at both sites indicates that they are much more recent than the two new national monuments dedicated to mammoths.

Likewise, it should be mentioned that perhaps the most-famous mammoth fossil site in the United States is not part of the U.S. National Park System.  Mammoth fossils have been found at the La Brea tar pits near Los Angeles, California which is now part of the Page Museum.  The fossils there also date from relatively recent history, from between 40,000 and 10,000 years ago.

Mammoths were also featured by the National Park Service as part of the 2012 National Fossil Day artwork.  According to their info, mammoth fossils have also been found at Great Sand Dunes National Park & Preserve in Colorado,  Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the Utah-Arizona border, and of all places, Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania.

Nevertheless, very few visitors to these Parks would have come away with any deeper appreciation for the way in which mammoth fossils are found, or for the ways in which mammoths lived and thrived in this country, literally for millions of years.   Waco Mammoth National Monument in particular will provide an outstanding opportunity for education about these wonderful creatures.

Its fascintating to think about how sites like Waco Mammoth connect to our present-day world.   Although these were not the Wooly Mammoths of Siberia, its still amazing to think of these giant beasts living in places like central Texas, Las Vegas, and southern California.  In fact, these giant beasts roamed here “only” a few tens of thousands of years, which really puts into context the tens of millions of years that separate us from the other fossil-focused national parks in the National Park System.

Another example of the outstanding mammoth fossils at the Waco Mammoth National Monument.  Photo credit: E. Wilson
Another example of the outstanding mammoth fossils at the Waco Mammoth National Monument. Photo credit: E. Wilson

 

(*) – It should be noted that a single fossil mammoth was found at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in 2002, but mammoths are not the primary focus of interpretation and education there.

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