For the first time in thirty years, scientists will get a chance to visit Wyoming’s Natural Trap Cave in the Bighorn Mountains—a site that contains thousands of ancient fossils piled up at the bottom of the 82-foot (25-meter) deep sink-hole in the earth. This will give paleontologists a terrific opportunity to examine the many creatures—bison, mammoth elephants, cheetahs—that walked the foothills of the Bighorn Mountains during the last Ice Age, which occurred at the end of the Pleistocene and lasted from about 100,000 to 12,000 years ago.
For a period of tens of thousands of years, animals—many which now are extinct—have been falling to their deaths through the hard-to-see, 15-foot opening to the cave, according to a report by the Christian Science Monitor. In the 1970s, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management put a grate across the hole to keep animals and people from sharing that fate.
Now, the Bureau of Land Management is getting ready to reopen the grate to allow an international team of scientists to examine the subterranean cave and its treasure trove of fossils. Team leader Julie Meachen, a paleontologist at Des Moines University, is practicing her rock-climbing skills in preparation for the adventure. “I’m pretty terrified,” she told the Associated Press (AP).
The only way to get to the bottom of the cave is to rappel down. Getting back out involves an eight-story climb back up using a single rope.
“It’s an imposing hole in the ground,” says Brent Breithaupt, a paleontologist with the Bureau of Land Management. “But one that actually has very important scientific value.”
Temperatures in Natural Trap Cave are perpetually cool and rarely exceed 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the Monitor reports. This gives the research team hope they will be able to bring back bone fragments containing preserved mitochondrial DNA
“It’s so cold all year long, that it has got just the perfect conditions for preserving DNA, in multiple species, in large numbers of individuals,” Meachen told the AP. “Which is not really found anywhere except Siberia and the Arctic.”
The researchers also hope to gain insight into the Pleistocene extinction, when many species died out. It is unclear whether the die-out was due to climate change, over-hunting by early humans, or some other cause.