Paleontologists at Work in a Cave

Illinois State Museum paleontologist Mona Colburn examines sediment in a cave. She is searching for bones.

Recently, paleontologists from the Illinois State Museum (ISM) and Northern Arizona University (NAU), along with cavers from central Missouri and eastern Iowa, visited a cave in central Missouri to examine paleontological material (bones and teeth) in the cave. They knew that the cave contained bones, because bones had been collected from there during the 1960s under the direction of Dr. Oscar Hawksley of Central Missouri State University. The collection, which is now housed at the Illinois State Museum, includes the remains of hundreds of animals. Some of the animals recovered are extinct, such as peccaries, dire wolves, and short-faced bear. Others are still alive but no longer occur in Missouri. These include yellow-cheeked voles, fishers, and snowshoe hares. Still other animals recovered still occur in Missouri today, including eastern woodrats, coyotes, and gray bats. The bones were deposited into the cave over 20,000 years ago.

The paleontologists were trying to determine how many more bones are in the cave, what shape they are in, and how they got there.

People at cave entrance

Cavers Rob Tayloe, Dusty Schubert, and Patty Daw, and paleontologists Blaine Schubert and Mona Colburn are approaching an entrance to the cave.

This is not the entrance the animals used during the Late Pleistocene. If they had used this entrance, the animals would have had to go through a ten inch hole to get to where the bones are now found.

Paleontologists working in passage

To get to this area the party had to pass through a narrow canyon and a 10-inch hole. The team collected small samples of sediment. These samples will be examined in the laboratory to determine what kinds of small animal bones (bats, mice, etc.) can be found in the sediments.

The team also found this well-preserved tooth during their visit. It is a molar of an extinct peccary. This tooth, as well as all other materials collected by the team, have been added to the previous collections from the site in the Illinois State Museum.

QuickTime Virtual Reality visit to the bone passage

Collection of Bone from a Missouri Cave

The bones pictured below are a just some of the bones that Dr. Oscar Hawksley collected from one cave in central Missouri. Dr. Hawksley collected bones from more than 50 caves during his over four decades at Central Missouri State University. His extraordinary collection is housed at the Illinois State Museum.

If you enjoyed this cave visit, you might be interested in some of these other cave and caving links.