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Ice Age Animal Trove

11 February 2019

Douglas Palmer reports in Down to Earth 106 (February 2019) the discovery of mammoth and rhinoceros remains in Cambridgeshire – during road works upgrading the A14 between Cambridge and Huntingdon. While excavating gravel from a pit near Fenstanton digger driver Darren Hickman found a mammoth tusk and the ice age bones … in the base clay area. Present amongst the bones, including  skulls were woolly rhinoceros (adapted to the cold) along with rhinoceros usually found in warmer climes. The smaller bones of the animals as well as those of smaller animals had been destroyed by the rough and tumble of moving water (melt water flow). It is not unusual for the remains of animals from different periods of the Ice Age climate regimes to be jumbled together by river erosion of older sediments and then redeposited with younger sediments. Researchers are currently looking in the clay and gravel to find clues on the age of the bones. Expect a published study in a year or so.

The bone bearing Fenstanton sand and gravels appear similar to those found in a nearby quarry. This preserves a succession of sediments dating from over 130,000 years ago as well as others dating to the warm interglacial. Present in the quarry are also sediments from the last Ice Age, between 115,000 and 11,400 years ago. Apparently, these kind of organic layers are quite common in sand and gravel deposits (made up of plant remains, seeds and pollen). A new section is going to be cut from the quarry simply for the investigation. A fresh face is important for dating the sedimentary layers. Scientists will be able to sample each layer, looking especially at the finer grained sands and organic inclusions (laid down in quiet areas of the water flow in what are thought to be ice melt rivers). Here they hope to find additional plant remains as these can help to understand the climate. Shells of fresh water molluscs and insect remains (such as the wing cases of beetles) are also temperature specific. How cold was the last Ice Age? We know the Late Glacial Maximum was very cold – but what about 40,000 years ago?

Meanwhile, the Sedgewick Museum in Cambridge has an exhibition of the remains of animals that have been given to the museum for safe keeping – all animals that once lived in the general area. These vary from warm climate hippopotamus, rhinoceros, elephant, lion and hyena. Cold adapted animal remains include woolly mammoth and woolly rhinoceros. Douglas Palmer is based at the museum and is the authors of several books on fossils.

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