When the young “bobcats” of the Wilderness Park Nature Camp hunt for old animal bones, they typically find the remains of cows, bison and sometimes wolves.
Their discovery Tuesday was of a more prehistoric nature.
The day-campers found a baby mammoth tooth while wading waist-high through the thick mud of Salt Creek.
“It’s so different from everything we find,” said Shannon Sullivan, a junior counselor for the summer camp and one of the two leaders of the bobcats group.
There are 60 kids ages 7 through 9 in the program, divided into six groups. Since the camp started in June, each week has had a different theme, and this week is “Water Week,” with lessons involving water exploration and testing the water’s pH and turbidity.
Tuesday, the bobcats had traveled about a mile up Salt Creek when one of their counselors, Colleen Zajac, found a baseball-sized tooth lying on a muddy bank.
Based on what she’d learned in field trips to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Morrill Hall, Zajac said, she knew it must be a mammoth’s tooth.
As soon as the leaders told their troop of the find, Zajac and Sullivan were hit with questions: How do you know it’s a mammoth’s tooth? How old is it? Where is it from? Why is it here?
The leaders answered what they knew but also had Morrill Hall paleontologists verify the tooth belonged to a baby mammoth.
The park hasn't decided whether it will keep the tooth or offer it to Morrill Hall for further research, said Ted Hobrich, director of the Wilderness Park Nature Camps.
Zajac said she suspects recent flooding may have unearthed the tooth or put it in Lincoln. Because of this initial find, the kids said they dream of coming across a mammoth skull, a dodo beak or even bones that once belonged to dinosaurs.
The rest of the bones and shells the group discovered Tuesday will likely be set up inside the bobcats’ “magic spot,” Zajac said, which is an area each group has to keep its discoveries. As part of the fun, the groups are allowed to steal the flag or other findings from each other.
The nature camp is great for children, Sullivan said, because it gets them away from their TV screens and smartphones.
Zajac echoed the same is true for counselors.
“This isn’t a job to me,” she said. “This is getting to be a kid all day.”