Waco’s mammoth site is getting a paleontologist for its 10th birthday as a public attraction.
The mammoth site, which opened to the public 10 years ago as of Dec. 5, attracts visitors from around the world and hosts countless Waco schoolchildren on field trips. It became the Waco Mammoth National Monument in 2015, and the National Park Service will employ the new paleontologist, one of 10 stationed at various national monuments, site manager Raegan King said.
“Everybody is excited to have a paleontologist on board,” King said. “Her direct superior will be our National Park Service superintendent. This being our first, we’re going to learn as we go.”
The site’s fossils, many on display in the positions where they were uncovered, “represent the nation’s first and only recorded evidence of a nursery herd of ice age Columbian mammoths,” according to site’s National Park Service website.
The paleontologist, who will start in January, will have a workstation at the site and work with fossils stored at Baylor University’s Mayborn Museum, one of the mammoth site’s partners.
“That’s a dream job for a kid,” Waco Parks Director Jonathan Cook said. “But how many times did you actually get to meet a paleontologist? It’s not only the potential of what she can do research-wise at the site. It’s about one-on-one classroom communication and being able to talk to the kids. We’re really excited about what she’s going to bring to the table.”
King said digging may one day resume at the site, but it is unclear when or where it would. The site’s storage facility, overseen by the Mayborn, is already full of fossils ready to be studied.
“We have a lot out of the ground already,” King said. “We have upward of 25 mammoths represented. We’ve got three camels, bison, an alligator, deer, a tortoise. … We’ve got a lot of material that has not been prepared by scientists for further study and possibly exhibition.”
Though the site is part of the National Park System, it is operated through a partnership that also includes the city of Waco, Baylor University and the Waco Mammoth Foundation.
“It’s a unique model for this type of park, and we get a lot of questions from around the United States,” Cook said. “I’ll just say this: We wouldn’t want it any other way for what everyone brings to the table.”
King said the site was an unusual addition to the National Park System because it was already functioning and a stone’s throw from the city.
“Most monuments are just out in the country,” King said. “No staff, no tours, no budget, no maintenance budget, but we already had all that. Nobody could have predicted how rapidly it grew.”
The site saw 9,494 visitors last year, about 25% of whom came from outside the state. In fiscal year 2011-12, the site saw 153 guests from 35 foreign countries. Last year, it had 2,500 visitors from 70 foreign countries. King said officials are excited about their high attendance, but space is a constant concern.
“The entire partnership is aware of the limitations of our facilities,” King said.
The site’s welcome center and gift shop, packed with just about every mammoth-themed souvenir imaginable, become crowded fast, even during relatively slow days. King said the site’s staff has long-term goals to expand those areas and add a classroom that can accommodate school groups during inclement weather.
“We do have a larger plan for the park in our strategic plan,” King said. “It’s the dream. A larger parking lot, a larger welcome center, a paleontology lab, a classroom and more exhibits that are youth-focused but that adults can appreciate too.”
The site plans to step up its outreach and work more with local schools next year, bringing programming to classrooms, Cook said.
Through the city of Waco, the site participates in a national program that allows it to exchange educational fossil kits with other museums. The kits then go out to local schools so teachers can incorporate them into lessons and students can get a close look at fossils, sea shells, animal teeth and plants from other states. Since 2013, kits from Waco have gone to 25 states and Canada.
“It’s a program that’s unique to this partnership, I think,” King said.
King said she takes inspiration from other sites in the National Park System. The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Kimberly, Oregon, has a paleontologist lab where guests can watch scientists at work. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado is best known for its insect fossils, and Dinosaur National Monument on the Colorado-Utah border is the only other National Park site that has a dig shelter comparable to the mammoth site’s, King said.
The Waco Mammoth National Monument has a 10-year anniversary party planned for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Dec. 14.