The National Park Service is beginning to excavate the mouth of an unexplored cave in the Black Hills of South Dakota on the grounds of Wind Cave National Park, and researchers believe their efforts will broaden our understanding of how the regions climate has changed over thousands of years.
A park service worker found Persistence Cave in 2004 in Wind Cave National Park, in western South Dakota, but the agency has kept mum on the discovery, partly to prevent amateur spelunkers for trying to explore the well-preserved site.
On Monday, a team of scientists led by Eastern Tennessee University professor Jim Mead will begin unearthing the entrance of the cave, hauling out bags of sediment and animal bones to be analyzed. They have already found bones dating back nearly 11,000 years ago and the remains of at least three species that hadn’t been found in the region before – the pika, pine marten and platygonus, an extinct relative of the modern-day peccary, the Recorder Online reported.
While it is enthralling to discover an extinct species that once roamed the Black Hills region, Mead said it’s even more ecologically important to him to discover that an existing animal like the pika once lived here. The rodent-like mammal can still be found in cold, mountainous climates of North America, suggesting the environment of the Black Hills was much different many years ago, he said.
The researchers will be studying the newfound fossils along with those found at the famous Mammoth Site – a well-preserved graveyard of the prehistoric beasts – that was discovered in nearby Hot Springs in the 1970s. They’ll use their findings to map how the region’s climate has evolved – the mammoths are believed to have died approximately 26,000 years ago, while the oldest bones found at the mouth of Persistence Cave only date back about 11,000 years ago.
“In reconstructing the past environments of the Black Hills, it’s nice to have a number of different points,” Mead said. “What we’re trying to do, centered through the Mammoth site, is to understand essentially the Ice Age environmental change through time.”