Teaching Kids About Waco Mammoth National Monument and Eating Mammoths?

Teaching Kids About Waco Mammoth National Monument and Eating Mammoths?

What’s up, everyone? It’s sweltering here in Waco; we’ve been averaging a temperature of 87°F, but also a high of 100°F, over the past two weeks. Luckily, the Dig Shelter at Waco Mammoth National Monument (WMNM) is air-conditioned (mainly for the fossil’s sake and not the sake of its interns). We do have some rain coming in, according to our forecast, but I kind of don’t want it to rain. My Master’s project at Baylor involves me digging up and studying some dinosaur tracks, and I don’t want them to get any more covered in mud than they already are. For this blog post, I will share my favorite moment working at WMNM, so far.

My favorite moment from, or more so my favorite part of, working at WMNM this summer has been all of the interactions I’ve had with visitors, whether it’s while working in the dig shelter or assisting in outreach. While doing conservation work in the dig shelter, I am essentially out on display with the mammoths. Visitors who come to see our mammoths also get to see me, covered head to toe in dirt. Working in the dig shelter is a privilege, and I am always filled with childlike wonder whenever I can work amongst our mammoth and camel fossils. However, it’s also when I am most vulnerable to… QUESTIONS! Most people would probably get annoyed by people constantly asking them questions while they try to get work done, but I enjoy it. Questions I receive in the Dig Shelter spice up my day, working as a good distraction from the meticulous work done in the building. Many visitors don’t say a word and take a couple of pictures, enjoying the fact that they can see the work being done at WMNM. I’m in a couple of Paleontology and Texas Parks Facebook groups, and I’ve seen multiple posts with pictures of the site and of me working in the dig shelter from people I’ve never met. I incorporated a couple of those pictures into this blog post. Thank you, internet.

Photo I found on Facebook of me preserving our Western camel. The person who uploaded this said “We saw some dinosaur bones” and now all of their comments are just people correcting them.

Visitors who are brave enough to ask questions ask a wide range of questions, usually related to the site and fossil preservation. I’ve met hobbyists who enjoy fossil hunting but have no formal education in paleontology, geology, or ecology. They usually ask the most exciting questions about fossil preparation techniques, what consolidates we use to glue our bones, and what kind of fossils we can find in our Pleistocene rocks (2.6 million – 11,000 years ago). I get a couple of people asking me questions about the tour given by WMNM’s city employees, showing me that they’ve been ignoring the tour. I’m not bothered by these, but I still answer them respectfully and try to be as informative as possible. Some of these visitors have apparently bothered interns in the past, purposefully dropping objects into the dig shelter to get an intern’s attention, but I have not experienced any behavior like this.

Ready to teach 90+ children about the Pleistocene.

The best questions I get, however, come from children. Children ask the darnedest things, ranging from “Do you actually have fun digging all day?” to “How did other mammoths in the area mourn the mammoths here?” Just the other day, I had a hilarious conversation with a kid that’s stuck with me. It started with a small boy asking me, “What’s the smallest fossil you have found here?” I showed him a baby mammoth tooth plate that I found a couple of weeks ago and explained mammoth teeth to him. He was awestruck, surprised that even baby mammoths could have such small teeth, later saying, “Wow, that’s almost as small as my teeth.” He then said something that has been echoing in my head for days now, “I want to EAT mammoth now,” following it up by chomping the air. I couldn’t help but laugh, which only encouraged him and made him chomp the air more. I told him that a company in Dallas, TX, was working to bring back and clone Wooly Mammoths. He stopped chomping the air and just gave me a big smile. Little interactions like that stick with me, reminding me of childlike wonder and silliness. They make my day.

The kids loved asking about mammoth teeth and how they worked compared to our teeth.

I recently had the pleasure of helping lead a group of 90+ children this week, assisting WMNM’s Park Guide, Ranger Brandon Kenning. Managing 90+ kids sounds daunting, but the group was prepared enough to split their group into four different sub-groups. Rather than doing four separate, full tours of WMNM, Brandon had Phoenix, WMNM’s Scientists in Park intern, and I lead different stations that each group would visit. Phoenix taught the children about the scientific method, Brandon gave them a tour of the Dig Shelter, and I taught them about geology and what Texas was like during the Pleistocene Epoch. This was perfect; I taught these kids about the geologic time scale, the differences between paleontologists and geologists, the differences between paleontologists and archeologists, and, most importantly, the animals that lived in Pleistocene Waco. Watching them look on in awe as I told them about Glyptodonts, massive armadillo-like mammals that were the size of a car, and Giant Ground Sloths never got old. A lot of the kids were fascinated by the replica teeth we had on display by the site’s welcome center. They kept asking me about their function, what animals they belonged to, and “where can I dig to find some.”

A couple of the kids already knew about a lot of the prehistoric animals that lived here, showing more curiosity about paleontology and how to become a paleontologist. Now, I was the one in awe. One girl called me out for not calling an animal’s skull by its correct species name, saying, “Sir, that’s not just a saber-toothed cat skull; it’s Smilodon fatalis.” I didn’t expect any of those kids to know that! I am a bit of my younger self in that correction. I used to be that kid who knew everything about dinosaurs, asking questions about paleontology and even correcting poor, underpaid tour guides and museum staff workers. These interactions are memorable, reminding me of who I am and where my passion for paleontology began. Who knows, maybe one day, these kids will keep their passion and lead the next generation of paleontologists. I believe they will.

I had to hold a replica of a Smilodon fatalis skull, both for the girl who corrected me and because I’ve always wanted to own one since I was five years old.
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