Skip to main content

Treasure trove of prehistoric animal remains discovered in U.S.

By Jareen Imam, CNN
updated 10:55 AM EDT, Mon August 11, 2014
Images taken in July from the Bureau of Land Management show researchers inside the Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming, which contains the remains of tens of thousands of animals. Images taken in July from the Bureau of Land Management show researchers inside the Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming, which contains the remains of tens of thousands of animals.
Fossil treasure trove in Wyoming cave
Fossil treasure trove in Wyoming cave
Fossil treasure trove in Wyoming cave
Fossil treasure trove in Wyoming cave
Fossil treasure trove in Wyoming cave
  • Hundreds of prehistoric animal remains were discovered in Wyoming
  • Scientists suspect some remains date back 20,000 years
  • Remains will be transported to universities in the U.S. and Australia

(CNN) -- Scientists descended into a deep cave, hoping to find Ice Age mammals' remains. What they found stunned them: the remains of hundreds of big prehistoric mammals.

The treasure trove was discovered in the Natural Trap Cave at the base of Bighorn Mountains in north-central Wyoming.

Scientist: We expect to find more
Remains of 3 triceratops found
How do you move a herd of dino fossils?

"We didn't know what to expect. We hadn't been there in 30 years and we didn't know what the cave would be like," Julie Meachen, a professor at Des Moines University, told CNN. She was among the scientists who rappelled down the 85-foot cave to excavate.

Researchers believe these ancient animals may have fallen into what was then a sinkhole-like pit.

Natural Trap Cave, part of land run by the on Bureau of Land Management, was discovered by an international team of paleontologists back in the 1970s. In past excavations, scientists have discovered the fossils of mammoths, short-faced bears, collared lemmings, and camels buried underneath layers of sediment.

The cave is cool and damp -- prefect for preserving prehistoric remains, Meachen says. "It's like a refrigerator in there," she said. "Some of the bones we're finding there have collagen in them. That is where you could get the ancient DNA."

The scientists saw bones falling out of a part of the cave, and decided to start digging there. "That was the fossil layer," she said. "There is so much to dig. We have two more years for funding that we can be out there, so we are going to try to dig up as much as we can." This year's excavation was funded by National Geographic.

Professor Alan Cooper of Australia's University of Adelaide was also part of the excavation that began on July 29. The Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming tweeted a video of the professor discussing the fossil finds at Natural Trap Cave on Thursday, which was uploaded to Youtube.

"This is one of the richest sites for megafauna mammal bones in the lower 48 states and southern Canada," he said in the video. Megafauna mammals are considered to be large or giant animals, typically larger than a human.

Some of the remains are believed to be of the North American lion and the American cheetah, Cooper explained in the video. Some of the species found are estimated to have gone extinct more than 20,000 years ago, according to the National Park Service.

"I've had this list of really puzzling evolutionary mysteries, things like the Falkland Islands wolf or the American cheetah, which we are finding bones of here, and the American lion," Copper said.

Scientists are using latex gloves and breathing masks while surfacing the prehistoric remains as a way to ensure that excavators' DNA do not get onto the animal bones. Characteristics such as weight, smoothness of the surface and coloring can help scientists determine whether these prehistoric bones have genetic matter that they can test.

The best preserved remains will be packed in cooler containers and transported back to universities in the United States and also the Australian Center of Ancient DNA and the University of Adelaide for testing.

8 places for fantastic fossil finds

As heavy as 14 elephants, as long as 2 tractor trailers: Meet Mr. Titanosaur

Scientists discover what may be the biggest bird ever to fly

Part of complete coverage on
Science news
updated 3:34 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Nichelle Nichols has spent her whole life going where no one has gone before, and at 81 she's still as sassy and straight-talking as you'd expect from an interstellar explorer.
updated 7:52 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
The world's largest flying aquatic insect, with huge, nightmarish pincers, has been discovered in China's Sichuan province.
updated 8:10 AM EDT, Mon June 23, 2014
As fans of "Grey's Anatomy," "ER" and any other hospital-based show can tell you, emergency-room doctors are fighting against time.
updated 7:59 AM EDT, Thu May 29, 2014
Ask 100 robotics scientists why they're inspired to create modern-day automatons and you may get 100 different answers.
updated 12:35 PM EDT, Fri June 13, 2014
From the air, the Namibian desert looks like it has a bad case of chicken pox.
updated 12:43 PM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
The trend for nature-inspired designs has spread across industries from crab-style deep-sea vessels to insect-inspired buildings.
updated 8:22 AM EDT, Sun May 25, 2014
Consider it the taxonomist's equivalent of a People magazine's Most Beautiful List.
updated 11:32 AM EDT, Fri May 9, 2014
For the first time, scientists have shown it is possible to alter the biological alphabet and still have a living organism that passes on the genetic information.
updated 7:48 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
Do we really want to go the route of "Jurassic Park"?
updated 8:44 AM EDT, Fri May 2, 2014
Catch a train from the sky! Perhaps in the future, the high-rise superstructures could help revolutionize the way we travel.
updated 10:58 AM EDT, Mon May 5, 2014
In a nondescript hotel ballroom last month at the South by Southwest Interactive festival, Andras Forgacs offered a rare glimpse at the sci-fi future of food.
updated 10:12 AM EDT, Thu March 20, 2014
For a Tyrannosaurus rex looking for a snack, nothing might have tasted quite like the "chicken from hell."
updated 6:29 PM EDT, Fri March 14, 2014
Everyone is familiar with Tyrannosaurus rex, but humanity is only now meeting its much smaller Arctic cousin.
updated 12:12 PM EST, Thu March 6, 2014
At about 33 feet long, weighing 4 to 5 tons and baring large blade-shaped teeth, the dinosaur Torvosaurus gurneyi was a formidable creature.
updated 6:43 AM EST, Fri February 21, 2014
This Pachyrhinosaurus can go to the head of its class.
updated 8:04 AM EDT, Thu March 27, 2014
Science is still trying to work out how exactly we reason through moral problems, and how we judge others on the morality of their actions. But patterns are emerging.
updated 7:06 PM EST, Thu February 27, 2014
A promising way to stop a deadly disease, or an uncomfortable step toward what one leading ethicist called eugenics?
updated 8:07 PM EST, Fri February 14, 2014
Seattle paleontologists safely removed the largest fossilized mammoth tusk discovered in the region from a construction site.
updated 6:13 AM EDT, Tue April 23, 2013
A mysterious, circular structure, with a diameter greater than the length of a Boeing 747 jet, has been discovered submerged about 30 feet underneath the Sea of Galilee in Israel.
updated 5:25 PM EST, Fri January 17, 2014
Every corner of the planet offers some sort of natural peculiarity with an explanation that makes us wish we'd studied harder in junior high Earth science class.
updated 8:20 AM EST, Thu November 14, 2013
Deep in a remote, hot, dry patch of northwestern Australia lies one of the earliest detectable signs of life on the planet, tracing back nearly 3.5 billion years, scientists say.
updated 3:10 PM EDT, Wed September 4, 2013
We leave genetic traces of ourselves wherever we go -- in a strand of hair left on the subway or in saliva on the side of a glass at a cafe.