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Sept. 1, 2017
Story by Mark Hornickel * Photography by Todd Weddle
This story appears in the fall 2017 edition of the Northwest Alumni Magazine. To view the magazine in its entirety, click here.
There was a day last November that 2009 Northwest Missouri State University graduate Dr. Ashley Leger spent about 15 hours digging like a badger about 20 feet underground. Excavators and skid steers roared at the construction site surrounding her while cars passed on the busy streets above.
She hadn’t seen daylight and she hadn’t eaten.
She was sore and exhausted.
But Leger, a paleontologist working in tandem with the city of Los Angeles’ effort to extend its subway line, couldn’t stop smiling as she drove home that night. Nearly 24 hours earlier, she received the kind of phone call she had dreamed of since she was 7 years old.
She had just finished uncovering a nearly complete mammoth skull.
“I was covered in dirt and plaster and mud,” Leger said. “I had dirt smeared on my face, and I was so happy. It was a moment where I was like, ‘Wow, all of that work has finally come to this.’”
* * *
Leger converses with a transportation authority worker as they cross an intersection where a new subway station is being constructed. Beneath the roads, construction workers are digging a tunnel for the new subway line and Leger’s paleontology team is looking for relics of Pleistocene-era Los Angeles.
|Left, Leger has an office at the agency’s downtown L.A. headquarters as part of Cogstone Resource Management, a subcontractor working with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority to extend its subway line. Photos of Cogstone’s fossil finds are displayed on a wall at Leger’s desk. Right, a brush Leger uses to remove sediment from fossils lays beside the uncovered teeth of a mammoth skull.|
Leger was 7 the summer her family left their home in Omaha for a vacation and took I-80 west across Nebraska before turning north to South Dakota. They decided to stop for a night in Hot Springs, where someone suggested the parents take their daughter to the Mammoth Site, an active dig site where the bones of more than 60 individual mammoths have been uncovered.
To Leger, the Mammoth Site was as magical as Disneyland.
“It was that day at that museum that I decided I wanted to be a paleontologist,” Leger said. “That is why I went to school.”
As a kid, she kept herself busy by reading and making discoveries on her own. She enjoyed collecting rocks with her grandmother. Her parents scolded her for playing with roadkill after she learned from paleontology books that an animal’s skin disintegrated when it was buried underground.
“I’ve never lost that love,” she said. “I’m very much the little kid that never grew up. I am doing exactly what I wanted to do when I was in second grade.”
* * *
As a freshman at Northwest, Leger didn’t waiver on her dream. She boldly introduced herself to Dr. Richard Felton, an assistant professor of geology and geography at the time, on her first day of classes. Felton reacted by taking the enthusiastic freshman to see a mosasaur skeleton he was attempting to piece together and eventually involved her in his research.
Soon she was taking Felton’s graduate-level paleontology course and working with conodont fossils, tiny eel-like creatures that lived roughly 420 million years ago. After Felton retired, she took the paleontology course again, with Dr. John Pope as the instructor, to get a different perspective.
She actively participated in field trips to Elephant Rocks State Park, Devil's Icebox and the Viburnum mines in Missouri as well as Oklahoma, South Dakota and Colorado.
They helped her develop critical thinking skills and experience analyzing minerals.
Pope recalls a field trip stop at Deadwood, South Dakota, where students were assigned to match rock layers with their proper names. Afterward, Leger was energized by how much she learned during the exercise.
“She was one of those people who could do that very easily,” Pope said. “She could learn it in the classroom and apply it and have a good understanding of what was going on. She was one of the unique students who could do that at the college level.”
She received grants to do undergraduate research with Pope, including a project to measure and compare mammoth skulls. That work ultimately laid the foundation for her graduate studies and her doctoral dissertation at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, which took her throughout the country, from California to Washington, D.C., conducting mammoth research.
Her name remains on a handful of plaques within the geology wing of the Garrett-Strong Science Building. In 2008, she received the O.R. Grawe Award from the Association of Missouri Geologists, naming her the top geology student in the state – an honor four Northwest students have received since Leger, illustrating the strength of Northwest’s geology program.
“She’s one of the top people working on mammoths today in the world,” Pope said. “There’s few people who know anything about mammoths in the detail that she knows. She was discovering things as an undergrad and master’s student that a lot of the professionals hadn’t discovered.”
Then there was the Chinese food station in the student union that Leger frequented. There, she befriended a student worker, Harold, and asked him about his hometown. The brief conversation set in motion the trajectory for her career.
“Hot Springs, South Dakota,” Harold told her.
“No way! That is my favorite place in the world!” Leger said. “I want to work at the Mammoth Site.”
“I used to work at the Mammoth Site,” Harold said. “I was the maintenance guy.”
Leger stuttered. “Do you know Dr. Agenbroad?” Dr. Larry Agenbroad, an icon in paleontology circles, was the director of the Mammoth Site.
“Oh, Larry?” Harold answered, surprising Leger that he was on a first-name basis with the scientist.
Harold shared Agenbroad’s email address with Leger, and she held on to it for months while she worked up the courage to send him an inquiry about internship opportunities at the Mammoth Site.
When Leger, then a sophomore at Northwest, finally emailed Agenbroad, he responded within a couple hours and included an application for the Mammoth Site’s internship program.
* * *
Inside a Cogstone lab, Leger picks dirt from the mammoth skull her team excavated last fall at a construction site extending Los Angeles’ subway line. The paleontologists wrapped the sediment surrounding the skull in a plaster jacket to protect the bones and keep them intact during
Leger earned a Young Scientist Scholarship after her sophomore year at Northwest to spend two weeks at the Mammoth Site.
She returned the next two summers as an intern, fulfilling three-month commitments that allowed her to lead tours, provide instruction, conduct research in the lab and participate in digging.
After her last summer interning at the Mammoth Site in 2009, she transitioned to graduate studies at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology but continued to work and expand her knowledge at the museum.
She did research alongside Agenbroad and soaked in all she could about paleontology work, excavation and caring for fossils.
“I’d work for eight hours and then I’d go home and, instead of wearing my blue polo and my name tag, I’d put on my dirty jeans for digging and go back to work and do research, which was so much fun,” Leger said.
Three years into her master’s program, she redirected her studies toward a Ph.D., and Agenbroad, by now, had become a close mentor, guiding her research at the Mammoth Site and elsewhere. But when Agenbroad died of kidney failure in 2014, Leger’s grieving nearly derailed her research.
Agenbroad’s peers stepped in to help ensure Leger completed her dissertation, including Dr. Dan Fisher, a paleontology professor at the University of Michigan, and renowned paleontologist expert Dick “Sir Mammoth” Mol from the Netherlands.
Their gesture was a sign of respect for the work Leger already was doing in her young career, and her research of mammoth skulls has raised her profile as one of the world’s leading experts on the animal, earning her a nickname as “The Mammoth Girl.”
“She is very passionate,” Mol said. “I was so impressed that a student started to work on large heavy crania of mammoths. There are thousands of scientific papers on isolated mammoth molars but only a few on skulls. She did an excellent job and showed with her work how much we can learn from the morphology of the mammoth skulls – information that is not only of interest for paleontologists but also for archaeologists working on the interaction on mammoths and humans.”
* * *
Left, the skeleton of a Columbian mammoth is displayed at the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum in Los Angeles, where Ashley Leger works as a research associate. Right, Leger opens a tray of bones in the research and collections facility at the museum.
In 2014, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority began construction on a massive project to extend its Purple Line subway about nine miles and add seven stations.
California law requires paleontologists to monitor excavations for potential finds – “dirt watchers,” Leger calls them – and Cogstone Resource Management Inc., a small firm specializing in paleontology, archaeology and researching history, was named a subcontractor for the project.
Betting the extension could uncover a load of Pleistocene-era fossils, which was the subject of Leger’s research, Cogstone Chief Executive Officer Sherri Gust sought Leger, whom she’d met previously during Leger’s research visits to L.A.
“Ashley is in the forefront of interpreting these fossils for the public,” Gust said. “She is definitely contributing to paleontology.”
Leger began work as Cogstone’s field director on June 1, 2016, less than a month after graduating from School of Mines with her Ph.D. in geology and geological engineering with an emphasis in vertebrate paleontology.
“It’s a huge undertaking for the city,” Leger said. “It didn’t take me long to figure out that it’s exactly what I need to do. This is what I’ve spent my entire career training for – to be in charge of paleontological excavations, to make sure they’re done right, that they go smoothly and the resources are preserved.”
Leger works with fossils daily, whether at construction sites along the extension or the famed La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, an active excavation site similar to the Mammoth Site, where she is a research associate.
And in November, things got really interesting when a site monitor at the Purple Line’s La Brea station site found a 3-foot section of an adult mammoth tusk.
A few days later and about 10 feet from the tusk, a monitor noticed what appeared to be a larger fossil and called Leger around 11 p.m., telling her “I don’t know what I have, but it looks big.” She was on site at 6 the next morning and confirmed the fossil was a mammoth skull with both tusks.
“It was face up, so as we exposed it, it looked like a mammoth laying in the ground,” Leger said. “It looked like something out of a movie.”
After exposing as much of the skull as they could, the paleontologists covered it with plaster and burlap and placed a jacket around the specimen that’s reinforced with rebar and 2x4s to keep the tusks from breaking away. Then, the construction crew assisted with a bulldozer and crane to lift it onto a truck bed for transportation to the Cogstone lab.
* * *
Leger saw the mammoth skull she helped excavate in November for the first time in June when she
On a morning in June, Leger traveled about 58 miles east of Los Angeles to Cogstone’s lab in Riverside to study the mammoth skull further. It was the first time she had seen the creature since it was carved from its grave and she couldn’t stop smiling on that November night.
She showered it with affection as if it was an animal of her own.
“Hi, buddy, we’re going to dig you out of your dirt grave,” she said as she knelt beside the skull and began to gently pick away the dirt. “Man, these teeth are so pretty. … Oh, but you were so young. It makes me sad.”
She could barely contain her excitement as she brushed the sediment away.
“I don’t know how long this animal has been underground, but this piece of bone has never seen the light of day before,” she says. “It gets to see that light because we saved it, which is why, when you work on fossils, you can spend 15 hours underground because every moment is like that. You are constantly exposing something new, something no one’s ever seen. You don’t know what story it’s going to tell you.”
Every bone yields clues and information about the animal’s life. Leger’s assessment on this skull, measuring about 3½ feet wide and 5 feet long with its beautifully preserved teeth, is that the mammoth was about 8 to 12 years old – a young one considering the lifespan of a mammoth was about 70 years.
As work on the subway extension continues, the paleontology team’s finds have created a buzz in Los Angeles and beyond. In addition to the full tusk and skull, they found a rib in early December and continued to uncover bone fragments throughout the spring, including a camel forearm bone. The discoveries have garnered headlines in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today and a featured segment on “CBS This Morning.”
In modern Los Angeles, it’s difficult to fathom the region was once a grassland where camels, mammoths and mastodons roamed tens of thousands of years ago.
“People in South Dakota are used to discoveries at the Mammoth Site,” Leger said. “The millions of people in L.A., when you tell them you found a camel under Wilshire Boulevard, it elicits a different response. They’re like, ‘Camels used to live here?’ Yes, before there were buildings and it was all just flat roaming plains, there were camels and mammoths and sabretooth cats. It is just a different picture you paint. Everybody here is so excited, and it’s really awesome.”
Leger sometimes thinks about returning to the Mammoth Site or transitioning to teach at a college or university. But she’s quickly adapted to life in L.A. – finding an appreciation for the weather, the people and opportunities to see live tapings of popular television shows.
For now, Leger looks forward to what her team may uncover at other station sites and publishing her research. “I want to be the best in my field,” she says. “I’m not there yet.”
“There is just something mysterious and magical about the unknown,” she added. “We don’t know what’s in the ground. But we know these animals existed, and I get to bring them to life.”
Mark Hornickel, Communication Manager
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