Natural Trap Cave
Your. Support helps us bring you programs you love go. To Wyoming pbs.org. Click. On support and become, a sustaining, member or an annual member it's. Easy and secure, thank, you. This. Is what Wyoming, looks like today towns, roads, and, ranches, cows. Can be seen everywhere, wolves. And bison are making a comeback if, we. Go back five hundred years, we see villages, pathways, and migration, corridors. Humans. Have an impact on the landscape but, not to the degree of modern, times. Wildlife. Are plentiful, there are huge herds of bison bighorn. Sheep and, elk wolves. Roam vast, areas, of territory, and horses. Have not yet been reintroduced. To the Americas, but. What, if we go back thirteen thousand years and before what. Did Wyoming, look like then and why, has it changed at, the. Northernmost edge, of Wyoming, in the Bighorn Mountains, lies a cave, that has been collecting, information on, that very subject for, over 40,000. Years. Production. Funding for Main Street Wyoming is provided, in part by the wheeler Family Foundation, of Casper, and by, the members of Wyoming. PBS thank, you first. Time I was in Nashville trap was 1967. We, would drive, up to the cave and rig, off the axle of our vehicle, and drop the rope in and we'd, rappel in and climb back out and rappel down climb back out at. The bottom of the cave was. Actually a mound and that mound was really soft and crumbly. And had. Bones and, stuff, in it but it was all modern, you. Know rabbits and deer. And things like that. Natural. Trap cave is located in northern Wyoming it's, at the base of the Bighorn Mountains right, near the Bighorn reservoir. Natural. Trap cave is a karst, cave it's made out of limestone water. Percolates, in through the limestone and, then it dissolves away the, interior, leaving, just a shell and then. When the opening falls in it's very similar to how a sinkhole forms, but instead of forming a sinkhole it forms this cave it's. Called natural trap, because things, fall in and the, reason why the grade is there is because you know we didn't want people in cars going in there at least the BLM did not want people in cars going in there starting. In 1970. Dr. Lawrence Lowen, Dorf helped to recognize, the scientific. Significance, of natural, trap cave by conducting, an exploratory. Excavation. Of the cave as well. As taking steps to preserve the integrity of the specimens, there for future research. By. The mid-1970s. A, team of, paleontologists. Led by Larry Martin from the University, of Kansas and Miles Gilbert, from the University, of Missouri, began. The first major excavations. Of the site what. They found was one of the most complete, fossil, records, spanning, from the Pleistocene. Into, the Holocene. The. Pleistocene, epoch is also known as the Ice Age because. Of the cold fluctuations. That, occurred during that time, Pleistocene. Epoch lasted, from about 1.2. Million years ago to about eleven. And a half thousand, years ago many. Of the megafauna. Or large mammal, species that, existed, during that time went extinct, such, as saber-tooth cats dire. Wolves, short-faced. Bears, camels. Mammoths. And mastodons, all of those things went, extinct right around that time and that's, the border, between what, we call the Pleistocene, and the Holocene. So. The N Pleistocene, extinction event is a, conundrum that. Many. Scientists, have been thinking about for a long time the, primary. Ideas, are. Human. Influence when humans came to, North America they, wiped out all that the megafauna, the large mammals, for eating the, other hypothesis. Is that climate, change did, it and that makes sense because that's when the glaciers were also going away and large, mammals, tend to be particularly, sensitive, to climate change our. Project, doesn't really take, into account human, arrival but. We are looking at how climate affected. The animals both in, their genetic material and, in, their morphology and, we're, correlating, that with the. Pollen, data that we're collecting so we can recreate the flora at, natural. Trap cave at that time so. We try to get an entire, recreation. Of the. End Pleistocene, habitat, in northern. Wyoming. Natural. Trap cave is a challenging. Place to work I say, I have a very strenuous, commute. Every day to, get to my field site it's, such a complicated. Project because, of how, you have to get into the site since. There's no other way to get in you have to repel in on a single rope and then you have to ascend out using hand, ascenders, and your own steam. We. Put out an announcement to, the cavers, societies, and the grata is the local gratis and we. Had people show up in droves, and they have been the most incredible. Helpful. People they, really take initiative, and have an incredibly. Integral, to the process one. In particular, who's our head of safety he's, been volunteering for. Weeks at a time every, summer in order, to make this this project, happen, and we absolutely couldn't, have done it without him and without.
Other Members, of the, Wyoming community. The. Uniqueness of this cave is twofold. One. Is that, it's a pit cave that. Is on. Top of a ridge so. It funnels traffic. Animal traffic, down this Ridge and then, also unique, to this particular, pit cave is that, just. Before, you, come to the 15-foot, hole in the ground there's a little drop-off so you don't see it until you're right on top of it and then. It's almost too late and it has been for many animals. This. Particular, cave, has an, 82, foot entrance. Drop it's. About a 15, foot diameter Hall, and it bells out in all directions from, that hall. We. Go down a ladder onto. This ledge we have safety lines and then, there's a grid over the, top of the, cave to. Keep people and animals, from falling in now and, we. Do all our rope, rigging, off of that but to access this cave you have, to rappel, in and is, set down I can't, train people to be, super. Proficient, vertical, cavers, there's no way in this short amount of time we have I get him to a level that I feel comfortable I, can effect a rescue. Natural. Trap cave is a really important, fossil site not. Only because, of the quantity of fossils that are coming out but also because, of the preservation of the fossils. The. Cave is always, cold, it never gets above about, 42, degrees Fahrenheit, it's, also very wet probably, about 80 to 90 percent humidity. Making. It a little bit like your refrigerator, at home this. Site can really inform us of not only changes, in genetic variability, in the animals, but also of, the environment, in northern Wyoming during, the last ice age. The. Team has set up three active, excavation. Sites within the cave they, are known as the Bison saddle, the cheetah pit and the, catacombs, based, on some of the early specimens, out of each of them, the. Excavation. Work is primarily conducted. By volunteers, under the supervision of, lead scientists. In their respective, fields. The. Volunteers, are members of the caving community, students. In related, fields and others just interested, in the scientific significance. Of the cave. For. Dr. Julie, Meacham her field of expertise, is megafauna, she. Is interested, in the functional, morphology of, the large mammal, remains in the cave. Functional. Morphology is. The, study of body. Form, and function, so for example, a running animal like a cheetah would have a much shorter, upper. Arm or humerus than. It would lower, arm bones or radius. Whereas. Something that climbed for a living would. Have a much longer upper, arm bone than, lower arm bone. So. In terms of fossil, material we're, looking for diagnostic. Pieces, we. Need to be able to identify the, species that it came from and the, body part that, it came from it's been three piece oh it's. In three pieces Wow, they're well fitting, they. Are this, is another proximal. Metapod. Aisle of a cat. When, we have a lot of people down here as a team leader my job is basically to run, around and, manage, everybody, help the volunteers, identify. Specimens, so. I don't get to do a whole lot of excavating, myself, nice. That's definitely a carnivore, looks. Like. Looks. Like a wolf yeah yep. Nicely. Done I've. Been joking that I've just been playing stone first of all in this whole time you. Know trying to tell what's a what's a rock versus let's a bone it's. When you find something that you know for sure is bone and you can start to identify it it it's, pretty exciting. As. A volunteer, I feel like for me it's been an even bigger learning, experience, than for a lot of the scientists, and professors and everyone who have years. Of experience with this there's bone right along here here. Here. That's. All sections, of bone and we pulled a piece that broke right out of here, so we. Believe that you, know probably hopefully. This is all from from the same horse. So. That. Maybe. Even, could be a tooth see. Once I take up the ends, but. The side looks similar and has some of those things leave its. You're. Digging for fossils most, of the time you don't find anything you're, just eating through all the dirt and all you're finding is more dirt and rocks but when you see a piece of bones sticking. Out of the ground we do it around a little more and a little more and you figure out that it's something big that's buried there that's extremely.
Exciting, If, you think about digging, up dinosaur bones, that have been sitting out in the desert for 100. Million years they're they pretty much turn to rock these. Bones have only been down here for maybe ten, thousand years fifteen thousand years twenty thousand years something like that so they happen to there they're actually still bone they. Haven't actually they, haven't mineralized, yet this, area since we're kind of we're right under, where, we're right under the hole of the cave this is where water is gonna come through so these sediments are fairly, waterlogged, which, means that the bones are, not they're not gonna really dry out so, they're just which, which keeps them pretty fragile and. It's a vertebra of something I'm. Not sure what yet the. Problem is that it's, in it's in mud which is making it very fragile, and it's also surrounded, by gravel, so, I have to dig around the rocks to get the rocks out and then dig around the fossil to get the fossil app so it's taking a very long time, so. You can even see how it's it's starting to come apart a little bit right. There so see how it's broken right there so. What I'm trying to do is not to break that more so I have to be very careful, when I'm taking, the rocks out. All. Too. Fair. The. Dirt starts to crumble off I. Feel. Lucky that this is my first, paleontology. Experience, finding, a lot of things a lot, of field sites are not as productive, as this I mean even within this field site a lot of the areas aren't as productive as your flaw. How. About a, 12. 201. What's. A 1 a 1 is 202. This. Instrument, it measures distance. And then, a horizontal. Angle and vertical. Angle and so, it. Takes those 3 bits of information and. The. Computer, can extract. That and turn, it into XYZ. Coordinates, and so that way you, end up with a grid, and, then we can bring it into CAD and then you can look at it and say ok this Boone was sitting, this way this one was sitting this way and then. You can map it like that it's, probably gonna, be our last chance to be in here for a while and I just want to make sure everything's right, this. Is pretty high up in the cool things I've done. It's exciting to be a part of the project. When. We find a bone we, do, take measurements. Of the. Elevation, that it was found at the, position. It was found, in which section, of the grid it was found in for, this one specifically, since. We're digging up all these teeth right in the same area we. Have a range where they're found so you know that they were found together. The. Mouse ran right around me. Run. Up my pants, that's all I see. So. There's a giant grate over the cave because. In 1971. Someone almost drove their VW. Beetle into the cave so, big things don't fall any longer but small things get trapped all the time. Some. Of the things that we have found over the years include. Several, pack rats the. First one we, actually named him Paki LePew and, we. Did at F on ax me experiment, on him taphonomy. Is the study of the, breakdown of tissues, and the process of fossilization this. Is actually Paki right here kaki. Is very hard and desiccated, he's very dried out. He's. Been here the whole time and, he's basically just a. Packet, of bones with, some skin on it and fur, pack. Rats are super, cool they, make. These giant nests, and there's pack, rat nests, along the rim of the cave they, go. Out and they, collect, every. Bone and every, cool piece of wood that they find within a five kilometer diameter, you, can imagine these wood, rats precariously. Kind, of perching, on the rim of the cave and, then they're scurrying, around and, they kick all their prized treasures, down into the cave and so you get this reign of fossils, coming down into the cave it creates, this really nice dense, concentration. Of Bones that, give us a really clear picture of the community. We've. Radiocarbon, dated a lot of bones we're. Getting age ranges, got ranging, from, about. 2,000, years all the way down to 30,000 years and so we're trying to really pinpoint. Exactly, where. Each, of those different stratigraphic. Layers is. We. Tore. Off all the top of this which is all. Recent, stuff and then, there's this red layer and it's red layer right here which.
Is Policy. In recent recent passage it's, old but not as old as you want and, then we're in this gray layer which. Is the youngest layer that we care about, okay. Zero is everything above and so. We're carefully. Trying to not go to the next layer which you can already start seeing, which is a certain rocky. Next. Layer so there's a whole process to collecting, the microphone, because the bones are so small, it's. Really difficult to just excavate. In the same way that we're doing for the megafauna, so what we do instead is, we, take out really large sacks, of sediment, it's dirt and rocks, and bones all mixed together and. We're. Taking off one layer at a time and. Putting, it in bags and then dr. McGuire is gonna take it back to Georgia Tech and sift through all these, and look for all the microfossils, she told you about it. Will take up one layer at a time clean. It off then go to the next layer and then do that or four, layers. If. This fossil, site were not 80 feet below ground, then. I would be able to pull out so much more sediment, and I would be able to have a lot more micro, fauna in order, to do my analyses, and I'm having to be very efficient, because we're a little bit limited, in, you. Know having. To ask, our, friends, to pull all of this dirt up these, ropes, every. Day write. Down. All the dirt you can't see anything so we. Put it in screens and then. We wash away the, dirt, and it leaves us with the small fossils that we can send identify, we're, doing the quick and dirty screen washing, on site so we don't have to bring sixty, pound bags of dirt home we only have to bring ten, pounds, of little rocks and pebbles to sift through the laboratory. One, large like 40 years 60 pounds worth of sediment, it's reduced to basically, since. That's. Not too bad people. Who are interested, in paleontology who, want to help this. Is the perfect thing for the. And. Anything, you think might be a fossil you set it aside and, that way she'll. Only have maybe that cup full of things, to look at rather than thousands. And thousands and thousands. So. Paleontology. We love our volunteers. As, we're picking through the microfossils. The biological, gold are the key so, we can really identify species. Very easily from their teeth and, especially if we find a mandible. Or a maxilla. Which is an upper or lower jaw if it has teeth in it will always put that in a little vial so that in case the teeth fall, out of it we'll know that that's associated material. For. Me I get most excited if I, can find teeth because. My research depends, upon large, mammal, teeth so, any teeth, we find that, that I decide, I want a sample somehow, make their way to the laboratory, in Rochester, where I clean it up and pull. Out my dental drill and I drill the samples and put them in the mass spectrometer, so that we can not only figure, out what. The the animal was eating but also what time of year it, was eating that and we can also look at how. Much it rained at what time and get a general sense of temperature, variations, which, is really, cool stuff to be, able to understand it was going on in past climate. One. Of the ways that we do paleo ecology, effectively. Is that we try to bring in multiple. Lines of evidence and the, isotopic, record, gives us a sense of the. Environment that isn't showing up in the pollen record. Pollen. Is the most common, fossil, on, the. Terrestrial landscape, it's produced every, year in, massive. Quantities other. Things can decay leaves. Can. Get broken the, pollen it's, at the micron scale we. Go, to the. Sediment, wall and you, clean the face off and then, every. Centimeter, you take, a little, bit of material and put it into a bag we. Ended up with over, 500, samples, from this centimeter. Thick. Unit. Dirt. We. Functionally. Digest, it. Pollen. Is, like. A natural, plastic, and so. It's really resistant, to, chemicals. And so. We can dissolve, the rock and we can dissolve other organic, material, and. The, pollen grains, will remain. By. Looking at each sample, through, this. Sequence. Of dirt. We. Are able to look at changes, in the. Relative abundance, of different pollen, types and we. Use that to infer what the environment was doing. So. All the fossils, that we are excavating, in, our time here are all being deposited in, the collections, at the University, of Wyoming geological.
Museum. So. Here we have just a small, sub sampling, of bones from the natural trap cave I use the information that she's provided, and we enter it into our, database and, this is a large-scale, database, that includes all, the information that we could ever want to know about these specimens, and then, we have to figure out how to curate, them in a, way that will preserve the bones for, eternity. Right now what we're trying to do is essentially play Tetris, for, example in this tray, over here we have bird bones with. Horse bones with. American, cheetah bones and bunny bones or lagomorph, and so, these. Are not gonna stay here it's just a holding pattern while we figure out where they're gonna go, and we're trying to ensure that the different types of animals are organized, with with, like taxon, and, we're also trying to organize, them by the different. Stratigraphic. Locality, in which they were found. Digitizing. And imaging them is a very important, step in fossil curation, and that's because, only a few hundred people get to enter this room and physically look at the bones and so, we have to get the information out somehow, and so, our database, we have available via, the web and we're. Ultimately going to have pictures of every bone and, we're going to have, 3d. Models, of some of the bones available, for folks to download and so for really large bones we'll. Just use a regular high-end. Digital camera but we also have a scanner and they, will basically take, a 3d. Model, of the bone and make. It so that you can you can look at it and 3d print it just like this one that I'm holding here, specimens. That are smaller we. Have a digitizing. Station, and that's where we take really detailed, pictures, under high magnification that. Enables, researchers to see features that you wouldn't normally get to see as well as give a really accurate picture, of each, specimen I'm, really excited to have his collection because this is going to be one of the, first Wyoming, fossil, sites that will stay in Wyoming. Curating. The natural tribe cave specimens, here makes, our collection, that, much more important, and so it's a really good benefit, for us because it will bring more researchers, to the state of Wyoming and the University, of Wyoming. It's. Really fun, because. We're operating in, a world that had, ice. Sheets over it and. Horses. And camels, and. Direwolves. And mammoths. And mastodons. And no people and, you're just thinking about you. Know the world that you know but. It's. So foreign, and. We. Were, transiting, it through these data sets rarely. Do you get a site that has such a natural accumulation. Of specimens, it's, a very unbiased record so what we see here is what actually lived on the surface and a really kind of true snapshot, so. That, alone, makes, this collection a really unique collection, because it gives us a really reliable, indicator, at, what lived in Wyoming ten, twenty, thirty thousand, years ago how. Does this relate to what's happening, today in Africa, for example we, have the. Imminent, extinction. Of. Rhinoceroses. And we have. Elephants. That are very, endangered, and so. What, do we expect to see in that type of community, and, there. Is some evidence that in North, America as you have mammoths, going, extinct, then, what you end up seeing is a real. Expansion. Of forest systems, because. They're no longer being controlled, by the megafauna, that are on the landscape. You. Know Wyoming, is experienced. Long. Periods of drought we have studies, that suggest. Droughts, lasting, hundreds. If not thousands, of years one. Thing we would want to know that, the resource management level, is how. Do our natural systems respond. To. A deficit, in water, that. Is. 500. Years a thousand. Years. Because. These things happen, we can expect them to happen again. And that's, important, for our ranching, industry our. Communities. Everything. Depends, on water and one, of the things we want to do is we, could use this pay, low environmental, information out, of these obscure. Pollen. Grains and. Fossils. And so, we're really. Pushing. The data to answer or societally, relevant, questions. The. Cave has already begun to produce a clearer, picture of the past as Julie. Enter team published the results, of their research the. Scientific, community, will have an opportunity to, further update, the Paleolithic. Record. The. Sealed cave will continue, to preserve its treasures, as new research techniques. And technologies. Are developed, to recover, even more data, advancing. Our understanding of. The world we inhabit. All. Thanks, to this unassuming pit, in Wyoming's, landscape. Known as natural trap, cave. Production.
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