Dig success!

Holmes and I just got back from a quick trip out to the site this weekend  to prepare for an expedition next month.  We got rained out Saturday but found  some bones while we were moving dirt Friday including the other “baby” scapula, and a couple of large rib pieces–juvenile (probably from the “toddler” ) and something small TBD.   
We moved the pile we created in December about 10 ft. closer to the river into the area where we dug 2 years ago and started clearing  a new area about 10 ft. X 40 ft., north of the last dig.  Sloth-digging veteran, Will Mott, Council Bluffs, IA  operated a small tracked Bobcat that Jeff Evans, Evans Equipment Rental, delivered to the site.  Will  gave a blade he designed for the bucket a good workout. He proved he could shave off very thin (~1/2″) layers of clay with precision.  We spotted this bone pocket following behind him watching for signs of the blade uncovering anything red (like the bones).  The clay was mostly the oxidized brown color like we encountered for the first time in December, with only small thin patches of our familiar blue-gray.  We thought that might mean bad news for any bone discoveries but it fooled us.  These bones are at least as well preserved as those we found in the blue-gray.  
This could be a good digging model to follow in the future.  As we get further from the main bone deposit  it may allow us to use  our volunteers and budget more efficiently and cover the most ground.  There’s a lot more sloth still hiding out there!   Photos to follow in a couple of days. . . . Dave

Official report: last dig and preparation

Since we started excavating in 2003, Holmes has been keeping an official log he calls Megalonyx Matters documenting  our significant activites. This is publication #17, covering the preparation work leading up to our last expedition and its results. Lest anyone be concerned, the stubborn beaver discussed below is alive and well, and continuing to safeguard the site with a cover of at least a foot of water . . . .  Dave

Megalonyx Matters 17Site preparation (Aug. 27, Oct. 3, Dec. 4) and excavation (Dec. 6)

Site Preparation
On August 27, 2008 Dave Brenzel, Holmes Semken, Phil Mather (Mather and Sons) and Bob Athen (landowner) met at the site and devised a plan to extend the sloth excavation about 30 feet into the south bank to search for more juvenile remains. The first obstacle proved to be a downstream beaver dam that substantially increased the water level over the bone-bearing, blue-grey clay. Bob had experimented with removing the dam by hand. This worked but the beavers repaired it overnight. It was clear that each excavation would be initiated by attacking the dam.

On October 3, Holmes and Dave returned to oversee the Mather’s levee repair and overburden removal. Dave waded in and breached the beaver dam by the time the excavator arrived (8:00 am); the water dropped 2.5 feet at the site. We were delighted because this exposed the bone-bearing matrix. Phil (name of operator), who operated the excavator, got the machine to streamside (and back out) via some creative road repair over very mucky terrain resulting from the infamous 2008 flood. By the end of the day there was a combination dam/entrance ramp both up and downstream from the future excavation area. The ramps were about 30 feet apart. The old lateral (midstream) levee was largely removed by flooding but it was traceable and was also reinforced by the excavator. Sloth bone, predicted to be under this levee, appeared safe. At the end of the day, the south bank was pulled back about 30 feet and the dig floor appeared accessible for a crawler to enter, clear remaining overburden (approximately one foot) and build a stream side levee to protect south bank excavations. Phil noted, “We now have a big hole to play in on the next dig.”

The crawler, operated by Will Mott, arrived December 4. Dave drove to Shenandoah a day early to reopen negotiations with the resident beaver. Will started clearing overburden by 9:30 AM and worked until nightfall. Dave and Will both noted the clay was more varied in color and, except for an occasional patch, less blue than previously seen. There was also a distinct up-tilt in the clay layer upstream (East). In the afternoon, after the bulk of the overburden had been moved, Will attached a blade he had fabricated to the bucket of the crawler and began shaving off thin layers of clay to reduce the amount the weekend recruits would have to remove. Dave stood by watching for traces of bone. At the end of the day Will used the bucket to dig a sump to collect melt water and satisfy Dave’s curiosity about the depth of the clay. He dug through approximately four feet of clay, all as homogenous as the surface layers, before striking a layer of fine white sand. The sand began to seep into the hole from the sides under the pressure of a slow flow of water that eventually filled the hole (so much for the sump idea). Dave and Will left the site by 6PM.

The Sloth Rapid Response Team journeyed to Shenandoah on Friday, Dec. 5th and they were on site at 8:00 Saturday morning. After bailing out the hole, and starting the pumps to keep up with Dave’s spring, the volunteers formed a line facing the stream side levee and began cutting a trench toward the south bank of the cut parallel to the levee. Spoil was thrown onto the levee. By the end of the day the area, except for a snapping turtle bone, proved barren.

While disappointing in terms of sloth bone recovery, the dig did define the south boundary of the bone scatter. This boundary is now defined to the north and east as well as to the south. Bone has been probed in the partly excavated intermediate areas where the juvenile bone has been concentrated. Another positive note: Ron Vogel performed a feasibility test on the clay using ultrasonic equipment he borrowed from his department. The results were promising and Ron hopes to construct a prototype of an ultrasonic bone detector in time for our next venture to the site. The next dig will occur after the spoil that forms the south levee is pushed back into the south excavation and a new levee created between the two entrance ramps. The crawler will again be required and we are working on ways to facilitate its access and egress.

Participants on the December 6, 2008 dig:  Lynn Alex (OSA), Bob Athen (landowner), Cyril Below (grandson of Herb Dircks), David Brenzel (Co-PI, NSF grant), Andy Clack (Ancient DNA Centre, McMasters University), Herb Dircks (UI Rapid Prototyping Laboratory), Harold Decuir (President, Board of Directors, Greater Shenandoah Historical Museum, Kandyce Decuir (daughter), Pete Eyheralde (Naturalist, Mahaska County Conservation Board) , Elizabeth Fox (OSA), Cherie Haury-Artz (OSA), Sarah Horgen (UI Museum Natural History), Don Johnson UI Hospitals and Clinics, aka the Fossil Guy, and President, Eastern Iowa Paleontology Project, Meghann Mahoney (Museum of Natural History student-staff, Anthropology Major), Robert McAfee, Ph.D. (Faculty, Doane College), Holmes Semken (UI-Geoscience, Emeritus; PI, NSF grant), Austyn Slaybaugh CR High School student), Jennifer Sweet (OSA), Ron Vogel UI-Dept.of Physics and Astronomy), and Mary Weber (OSA).

Holmes A. Semken, Jr and David J. Brenzel, January 5, 2009

Ultrasound test-results

Ron Vogel, sloth volunteer and resident physics expert, has the theory that the remarkable uniformity of the clay that the sloth bones are resting in provides a unique opportunity to use ultrasound technology to search underground.  If so it would save us a lot of time and money digging blindly for bones, and allow us to extend our search area significantly.   Preliminary results are back from the clay samples he collected at the site last month and the results are promising.

  According to Ron, “The results are. . . the same as I found in the tests on site. That is, the acoustic loss is about 5 to 10 times that of the human body. That seems like a lot but it is actually a lot less than anyone else has reported for soil. Based on these measurements, I’m working on a device we can use on site.”   He doesn’t know if he can get it done in time to do us any good but plans to try.

Ground-penetrating radar, which uses radio wave frequencies,  is generally used for remote underground sensing,  but it won’t work at the site under our conditions–the wet clay absorbs too much of the signal.  Ultrasound works similarly, but uses sound waves instead, and doesn’t suffer from the attentuation loss-problem under wet conditions. The technology runs into problems however with sorting out the meaning of the many different signal returns that result from trying it in  mixed materials.  For that reason ultrasound is  limited to looking inside relatively uniform materials– like concrete roadways and bridges (for corrosion), or steel railroad tracks (for signs of fatigue or cracks) and of course people (for babies).  More, as Ron moves ahead. . . .   Dave

Photos, December 6, 2008 dig

  Dec 2008 West Tarkio Creek   Dec 2008 site closeup Dec 2008 getting organized  Dec 2008 Harold Dec 2008 Lynn Dec 2008 Pete Dec 2008 Ron Vogel Dec 2008 Don Dec 2008 Cherie Dec 2008 Andy Dec 2008 Meghann, Lynn and Rob Dec 2008 Kandyce Dec 2008 whole crew Dec 2008 OSA gang2 Dec 2008 Herb and Cy Dec 2008 shovel Dec 2008 Andy & Rob

Participating in the dig:  Lynn Alex, Bob Athen, Cyril Below, David Brenzel, Andy Clack, Harold Decuir, Kandyce Decuir, Herb Dircks,  Pete Eyheralde,  Elizabeth Fox, Cherie Haury-Artz, Sarah Horgen, Don Johnson, Meghann Mahoney, Robert McAfee, Holmes Semken, Austyn Slaybaugh, Jennifer Sweet, Ron Vogel, and Mary Weber.  Thanks all for another fun and successful outing. . . . Dave

A follow-up story in the paper

A lot of interest in the project in southwest Iowa. Here’s another story in the local paper:


The reporter, Tess Gruber Nelson, visited the site Saturday and called for an update Monday morning.  KMA, the local radio station, called to do an interview too.    Thanks again to everyone who participated and made it so memorable.    Dave

Finished here this weekend

Cleared the entire area (approx 10m X 2m) yesterday, a half-day sooned than expected.  Unfortunately we weren’t slowed by finding any sloth bones.   Recovered a single turtle bone. It’s a nice find though–our second species of turtle.  Should aid in further defining the mysterious watery environment that left this 4 ft.-thick layer of remarkably homogenous clay.  Ron’s ultra-sound tests gave him some promising data; he collected clay samples to take back to the university for  further tests.   With both the north and south borders of the creek cleared it looks now like we have just a couple of large areas in the middle of the creek left to excavate. We’ve probed for bones there and have confirmed their presence.  We’re thinking about doing some prep work with an excavator in the next couple of weeks, before the ground freezes solid, and returning before  the spring floods to finish digging.   Photos next week. . . . Dave

Digging this weekend!

After two years of delays due to high water and a couple false starts we’re back at the site this weekend with a full crew of volunteers–many veterans from previous digs.   Here’s a link to a story published this week in the local paper.  


Lynn Alex is back again with 4 other staff-members from the UI Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA).  Ron Vogel is back too representing the UI Department of Physics and Astronomy.  He brought  equipment to test the feasibility of using ground-penetrating ultra-sound to locate bones. Herb Dircks is here with his grandson Cyril.  Herb is a rapid protoyping consultant in the UI Engineering Design and Prototyping Center where he has been making duplicates of sloth bones to aid our research, using computed tomography (CT) scans supplied by the the Department of Radiology and Biomedical Engineering.   Dr. Rob McAfee http://www.sloth-world.org/ is driving in again from Doane College, Crete, NE; and Don Johnson is also returning representing the Eastern Iowa Paleontology Project.  Andy Clack flew in from McMaster University, Hamilton, Ontario, where he is studying ancient DNA under Hendrik Poinar in the Ancient DNA Centre.  

There’s no way to thank everyone here for volunteering their time, in near freezing weather, to move the project forward.  More tomorrow. . . . Dave

Getting ready: new photos from the site

 Holmes and I  drove out to Shenandoah last week, and with Phil Mather’s help (Mather & Sons Construction) repaired the berm and opened up a new search area under the slump block on the south side of the creek.







There’s a stubborn but hard-working beaver just downstream from the site that isn’t taking the hint that it needs to move out.  Bob tore the dam out twice last week before we arrived.  The third time is a charm.



 There’s rain in the forecast  this week, but as soon as we can get in there again we plan to pump out the water and clear the muck from the floor with a crawler.  Volunteers:  With any luck we will put out a Sloth Dig Alert in the next three weeks. Keep your eyes peeled.  Dave

New photos from the site

We drove out to see the site Tuesday. The water level in the creek has dropped considerably in recent weeks owing to record-low rainfall in August. Bob thought we could start getting ready to dig again, but advised us to see the drastic changes in the topography since the floods earlier this year.


Phil Mather (left), Mather & Sons,  who has come to our rescue a dozen times in the last 5 years with his excavating equipment and long experience;  Holmes (center); Bob Athen (right), the landowner and discoverer of the sloth. 




Looking downstream over the site. The floods straightened out all the curves in the creek .






Another view downstream and slightly north overlooking the dig site.



 Looking upstream toward the north bank.  The flood erased all traces of the road Mather built to access the site and the large hole we dug to reach the bones.  Good thing we were finished over there any way.


We came up with a plan and hoped to resume digging in just a couple of weeks but a thunderstorm hit as we were leaving Wednesday morning and dropped 1.44 inches on Shenandoah–as much as 4 inches upstream.   No telling how high the water rose. . . we may be stalled for a few more weeks. . . .  Dave