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HOT SPRINGS | "Who has ever seen an elephant in musth?" asks the tour guide.

A large number of hands go up.

This is not your average collection of campers.

High school students from around the country congregated this week at South Dakota School of Mines & Technology to attend Fossils Camp, a weeklong adventure featuring visits to ancient sea remnants on a Black Hills ranch to the Badlands to the university lab. 

"I looked up 'paleontology camp near me,'" said Kaylee Gregory, 15, from Williamsburg, Ohio. "I want to be a paleontologist. This is what I want to do. I love fossils, and I love rocks, and it's so fun."

Kids love dinosaurs. Darrin Pagnac, who specializes in vertebrate fossils, admits he sometimes compares creatures to the Loch Ness Monster because it "relates to people." But the students here don't need any Hollywood caricature to get excited. They're whiz kids who love science. On Thursday, the 20 campers and Mines paleontology faculty Pagnac toured the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs.

"Why do we fill the fossil with nitrogen?" asks Justin Wilkins, In Situ Bonebed Curator, with the Mammoth Site.

"Because it is lighter," says another student.

While standing over a mammoth's mandible, Wilkins presents a problem for students; fossils of a short-faced bear appear near at a tusk of mammoths' grave. What can be deduced? 

"How many short-faced bears were found with the mammoth?" asks Julia Ferguson, 17, from Luverne, Minn.

Wilkins explains they know of at least an arm bone on the right and an arm bone on the left.

"How do you know there weren't from different bears?" asks another student.

Wilkins nods. "That's what we're trying to disprove."

Behind the class, two interns use dental picks and tiny water bottles to brush away white plaster from pieces of pelvic bone from the 10,000-year-old mammoth. 

"This is my baby," says Anna Whitaker, one of the interns. 

The work looks tedious. But everyone here understands the reward of patience. Camp, according to Mines' website, costs just under $1,000. It lasts a week, and students reside in the dorms with undergrad supervision. The students, in NASA shirts and panama hats like those worn by popular television paleontologists, fit the profile of students invested in their future scientific careers. Some already struck fossil gold this week.

"I found some Mosasaur ribs," said Gregory.

"It's a marine reptile," said Aanissa Griffin, 16, from Raleigh, N.C.. "Have you seen 'Jurassic World?'"

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"In the Badlands, I found some fossilized dung-beetle," said Gregory. "I thought that was cool."

On Thursday, Wilkins showed students a pygmy mammoth from the Channel Islands off the coast of California.

"I think I read about this one," says a boy from Massachusetts. 

"You probably did," says Wilkins.

Students crowd around. One student asks about the growth of tusks. Another asks about the geologic deposition. Wilkins points out the right cheek bone was missing, likely while being buried in a riverbed. "Was it a full channel or small channel?" he asks.

Students put forward their educated guesses.

Wilkins says he prefers students to lead his tours with questions, a dangerous game with a less curious bunch, but safe territory with these kids. The basic distinctions between mastodon and woolly mammoth are yesterday's news. They're on to tougher questions.

"Were the Pre-Columbian mammoths in the process of dwarfing?" asks a student.

"Did they swim to the islands?" 

On Friday, they'll be back in Rapid City at the laboratory at Mines. And by the weekend, they'll be back home, enjoying their summers ... and their independent research into the busy life on this planet long before humans had arrived.  

Contact Christopher Vondracek at Christopher.Vondracek@rapidcityjournal.com.

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