The Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming is unlike any other cave. It’s an incredible treasure trove of the late Pleistocene period fossils. The 85-feet deep cavern has bones of tens of thousands of animals forming a 30-feet mound at the bottom. Entrance of the cave is just 12 x 15 feet, and it’s so well hidden that animals (even humans) can’t notice it until they have almost fallen in.
The international team will start digging into the cave on July 28
Now for the first time in more than 30 years, researchers have been granted the permission to revisit the cave again. Over a period of tens of thousands of years, many unsuspecting animals – including the now extinct mammoths, American cheetahs and American lions – fell into the deep cave to their deaths. Starting Monday, July 28, 2014, paleontologists will venture back into the cave and resume digging.
Last time, the cave was explored in 1970s by researchers at the University of Kansas. But the U.S. Bureau of Land Management sealed the cave’s entrance with a metal grate in 1980s. Now, the Bureau of Land Management is reopening the grate to offer researchers a look at the variety of animals that roamed around the Bighorn Mountains about 25,000 years ago.
Scientists will extract as many fossils from the cave as possible
Des Moines University paleontologist Julie Meachen will be leading an international team of a dozen scientists to get inside the cave. The only way into the cave is to rappel down, reports the Associated Press. Once you are in, the only way out is a single rope to climb back up. The cave is cold with average summer temperature of 40 degrees Fahrenheit. The humidity is around 98%.
Meachen says the animal remains are likely to be sufficiently preserved in a cold environment to contain pieces of genetic information. The oldest fossils could be more than 100,000 years old. Co-investigator Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide will try to collect fragments of mitochondrial DNA from the fossils. This kind of analysis wasn’t possible back in 1970s. It may help researchers understand how those animals were related to each other and to their modern counterparts.