Ask Wellington: Was the oldest deer fossil ever uncovered in North America found on Craig’s Hill in Ellensburg by a CWU graduate student?

Deer Jaw Meaghan Wetherall

Courtesy of Meaghan Wetherall

In September 2017, Logan Wetherell led a group of introductory geology students on a field trip to the Craig’s Hill, behind the Ellensburg Rodeo Grounds. At the time, Logan was a graduate student in the CWU Geology program.

As the class carefully surveyed the hillside, Logan spotted something interesting. He had participated in several previous fossil digs with his wife, Dr. Meaghan Wetherell, a lecturer in the Geology department.

“I think what made an impression is he knew it was a bone with teeth coming out of it,” Meaghan told the Ellensburg Daily Recordshortly after the discovery. “He said he thought it was an antelope.”

Meaghan said soil and rock deposits in the hillside, where the jaw bone was found was previously dated to about 5 million years old, so they knew the fossil was ancient. Since the Craig Hill cliffs are constantly eroding, the three-inch long artifact appeared to have only recently been exposed by the elements.

In an academic paper published in March 2020 by the Paleontological Society, Meaghan wrote that after the fossil was discovered, it was left in place until permission could be obtained to remove it. The bone was finally extracted about a year later and will be permanently stored at the Burke Museum of Natural History in Seattle.

Measurements of the bone indicated it was consistent in size and shape with deer jaws found at similarly-aged locations. As a result, she wrote, the fossil from Craig’s Hill “may be one of the oldest fossil deer yet found in North America.”

Meaghan told the Daily Record that “we think deer came across the Bering land bridge and this is another piece of evidence to support that.”

So, the story is true.


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