The previous post explored Mr. Ellie Pooh, a company in Sri Lanka that produces sustainable paper from elephant dung.
In this post, Michael Flancman, Co-Founder and CEO of Alternative Enterprises Co., Ltd. in Thailand, generously responded by email to my questions. He discusses the origins of his fascinating company–one that also produces paper products from elephant dung (amongst other animals, including giant tortoise dung!)–about the importance of sustainability and conservation, and about the plight of elephants in other places in the world.
For further details on how this type of paper is produced, please visit their website: http://new.poopoopaper.com/index.php/about-us/the-process-from-poop-to-paper!
1. How did POOPOOPAPER get started and how long have you been involved with the company? (Who is the other co-founder?)
I started the company with my wife in 2004. She’s from Chiang Mai, Thailand where we are located. I’m from Canada.
We started to fiddle with the concept of making non-tree, non-wood pulp based papers in 2002 though but it took us a few years to develop a viable material/ product. We had been working with handicrafts in SE Asia for a number of years prior and we had a fair bit of experience working with all sorts of crafted goods…from silk to ceramics, wood, candles, metals, paper etc.
In 2004, we decided we wanted to focus. We wanted to focus on products that had some integrity from a sustainability stand-point. This area has a long tradition with papermaking with mulberry bark and the local skill helped us as we set out to develop a range of many different types of non-tree, alternative fiber papers.
[[Image courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
Our first was paper made from elephant dung. Dung is abundant in Northern Thailand with about 5,000 elephants in the region. In some areas disposal is a bit of a problem.
[[Image courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
2. What made you choose to move from solely elephant dung to other types?
There was interest and demand and it seemed to be a natural progression. We developed our Cow and Horse POOPOOPAPER at the request of customers and other interested people we’ve met who were interested in our chemical-free process and curious about the use of different raw fiber materials to produce non-wood, tree-free pulp and paper.
This is also what led us to developing our other bleach-free, chlorine-free alternative fiber based papers such as coconut fiber, banana stalk, corn and pineapple husk fiber, bamboo fibers, etc.
[[Image of fibers in the process of boiling to produce clean pulp, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
We felt the process was similar (recipe and pulp mixture slightly different) and making a marketable product was achievable. We had access to a significant and consistent supply of a variety of different waste fiber materials due to the widespread agriculture/ farming activity that is prevalent in the area. FYI, our legal company name is Alternative Pulp & Paper Co., Ltd which reflects our interest and focus on alternative paper options.
[[Image of clean and dry elephant dung, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
3. How is the dung collected? (Zoos? Farms?)
Our elephant dung is collected via a network of mahouts and conservation camps that we’ve cobbled together over the years. There are also numerous poop dumps in a handful of districts where there are literally mounds of poo that’s been collected and discarded. Disposal is a problem in some villages. There are close to 5000 elephants in Northern Thailand. We send the pick-up trucks to collect dung on an as need basis. Sometimes we pay and other times we exchange for bananas, sugar cane or other edible vegetation which can be fed to the elephants.
[[Image of "poo pulp balls", clean fiber from dung mixed with other non-wood fibers and formed into balls to make paper, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
[[Image of paper screens drying in the sun, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
[[Image of sheets of elephant dung paper, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
4. As I have mentioned, my interest in connecting with you was related to elephants and their conservation. Has your company made any impacts on elephant (or other animal) conservation in Thailand?
We like to think we’re making a modest, positive contribution in a variety of areas. We try to do what we can to contribute and support a few different causes that are dear to my wife and I. We certainly hope the contributions we make are somewhat impactful. Here are a few of the numerous projects we’ve been involved in to varying degrees:
Specifically related to elephants in Thailand:
1. 2008 – we partially funded the construction of an elephant shelter at the Elephant Nature Park in Mae Taeng, Thailand which is operated by well known elephant conservationist Lek Chailert. The shelter had a capacity for two full-grown elephants and protected them for the elements. ENP rescues elephants and provides a sanctuary where they can roam freely within their 500-acre river valley location.
2. 2011 – we supported Project Elephant Footprint in Botswana. This is largely a research initiative established to study the migratory habits of the elephants there in order to better understand the nature of elephant/human conflicts in this part of Africa. This support was in tandem with the San Diego Zoo Global organization.
1. We currently support Elephant Parade and their Asian Elephant Foundation with preferential pricing to help them maximize contributions to the AEF.
2. Since 2008, we have contributed in-kind over $5,000 to various zoo-related non-profit entities.
3. Raised money to purchase and install a research camera to monitor the elusive snow leopard in the Malaysian rainforest. The snow leopard is threatened and the cameras help scientists better understand the number of leopards in a given area and their habits – data which helps them formulate recommendation for species survival.
4. Cash donations to CPAWS (Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society).
5. Cash donations to National Wildlife Federation (NWF).
6. In-kind donation to support the filming of ‘For The Love of Elephants‘ which is a documentary that sheds light on the plight of tortured/ abused elephants in India.
7. In-kind donation to Akash Patel’s ‘Elephants in the Classroom’ educational initiative. The 60 minute inter-disciplinary interactive standards-based (Pre K-6) SMART board lesson on elephants aims to raise awareness amongst young students in Oklahoma about elephants and sea turtles and other threatened animals. This is a recent project which expect to support on an on-going basis. Mr. Patel, a native of Nepal, uses our products to raise funds to help subsidize his free lecture series to thousands of young students every month.
8. Currently in-kind donation to support fundraising efforts for giant tortoise research in Alhambra Atoll in the Seychelles. We will be making pulp and paper from giant tortoise dung which we will in turn make products from for this initiative.
We also make countless donations to school groups, artists and various other individuals and groups that have a conservation/ recycling angle.
[[Image of interactive demonstration, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
5. Do your employees ever create the artistic designs themselves?
Absolutely, that’s where many of our designs originate…especially the designs that have local or indigenous patterns as well those designs we sell in the Asia region and certainly within Thailand.
[[Images of elephant dung paper products, courtesy of POOPOOPAPER]]
For Europe or North America we do tend to work with designers/ artists who are familiar with consumers and design preferences in those markets. One thing is for certain: there is always a local staff here involved in some stage of the process for every single item we craft. In fact, if you visit our Elephant POOPOOPAPER Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand you can see first-hand the local artisans crafting all sorts of design concepts every day.
6. Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you think people should know?
I want to share the following:
The primary perspective that our enterprise comes from today is from the perspective of producing an eco-friendly and alternative paper to typical, wood-pulp based papers which require widespread cutting of trees and a production process that pollutes the natural environment. We’re able to use our alternative paper products as a medium to convey the importance of sustainability and conservation….and not just for elephants although they are dear to our hearts since there are thousands in our part of the country. So, coming from the paper perspective, we see no difference between elephant, cow, horse, donkey, coconut, pineapple, corn husk fibers etc. In all cases we collect waste fiber material and process it into rolls or sheets of paper of various weights and regardless of waste fiber material we’re able to be a test case for the successful utilization of alternative fibrous materials to make paper, packaging, labels, stationery etc. using a chemical-free process free of bleach and chlorine.
I also think it’s important that your readers understand that elephants in different countries face somewhat different challenges and to varying degrees. In Botswana and many other countries they are faced with conflicts with human activities and encroachment on their traditional, natural, wild, habitats. In Cambodia or Vietnam, the elephant has virtually been wiped out and it’s more about rebuilding a population, albeit most likely captive. In Thailand, the focus is on keeping elephants and their mahouts away from unnatural, urban environments where they often come to ‘beg’ and perform tricks for tourists (which is arguably a form of abuse), and then, improving the quality of care for the elephant population, which is entirely captive, since it’s been decades since there was a wild population.
Find out more about Poo Poo Paper and Alternative Pulp & Paper Co., Ltd: http://new.poopoopaper.com/
You can see more fabulous pictures about their work here: http://new.poopoopaper.com/index.php/about-us/10-history/44-gallery
You can buy their products online here: http://store.poopoopaper.com/
If you are in NH, the Seacoast Science Center carries a few of their products in their store: http://www.seacoastsciencecenter.org/
For more information on the documentary “For the Love of Elephants”, please visit their website: http://fortheloveofelephants.net/
For more information on Elephant Parade: http://www.elephantparade.com/
For more information on the Elephant Nature Park in Thailand: http://www.elephantnaturepark.org/
If you haven’t already seen this beautiful video of Sangduen “Lek” Chailert, mentioned above, I highly recommend it (http://saveelephantfoundation.org/):
An Elephas-maximus sized THANK YOU to Michael Flancman for his generous responses to my many questions and the wonderful images provided for this post!!
They roamed across landscapes evoking tropical temperatures. Hazy yellows and oranges. Strokes of paint stretched across cut-paper trees. In the corner, a single hut. And throughout them all, raised paper elephants.
These designs populated a number of note cards and books, and it was the elephants that grabbed my attention.
The texture felt like handmade paper. Interested, I turned to the back of the cards to learn more.
“My initial reaction was: ‘Oh wow, this is really cool! It’s not on my radar that you can make paper out of things like dung.’”
Debby de Moulpied, owner of Bona Fide Green Goods, described her thoughts on the product in a phone interview.
“And it opened my eyes into paper production,” she continued, “how you can make paper out of a lot of cellulose options.”
It’s a sentiment not all customers share.
“Sometimes the reaction is: ‘Ew, gross.’ Other times, it’s just kind of fascination. And then, of course, there is always the giggle factor. We definitely call that ‘our giggle gift’ in the store.”
The company behind this paper is Mr. Ellie Pooh.
Dr. Karl Wald, co-founder of the company, spoke with me by phone from New York about the origins of this company and his experience in Sri Lanka.
“’Mr. Ellie Pooh’ is how we’re branding here in the U.S. only because it was just a little bit cuter,” he explained when asked about the many names associated with the product.
“We’re branding in Sri Lanka with the name ‘Maximus.’ [Elephas] ‘Maximus’ is the scientific name for elephant. [The idea behind] ‘Peace Paper’ was: we bring peace to the human-elephant conflict if we could give enough jobs in these areas.”
It’s a conflict that appears on every continent in the world: with the growth of human populations, the animal habitat shrinks. Limited resources spark the struggle between species. For elephants throughout Asia and Africa, this conflict threatens their existence. One could, however, say something very similar for those farmers and their families in Sri Lanka whose livelihood is impacted by these animals.
Speaking with Karl Wald, one cannot miss the two things he is passionate about: elephants and Sri Lanka.
“About 10 years ago, I went to Sri Lanka. And I went there as a volunteer for one of these orphanage programs.” But, he continued, “the orphanage programs were not set up for something that I really wanted to do when I got over there.”
So he connected with an elephant veterinarian at the local university. The arrangement was a business one: in exchange for a certain daily sum, the vet agreed to take Dr. Wald with him on his rounds across the country.
That experience was, for Dr. Wald, a “remarkable” one. And it was during this experience that he met the man that would become his partner: Thusitha Ranasinghe.
And it was “after many nights of warm beer and hot curry” that the idea to create Mr. Ellie Pooh formed. He was quick to mention that the origin of the idea—using elephant dung to make paper—was not his own. His friends in Sri Lanka had just started doing this in Kenya.
Dr. Wald described how, after he and Thusitha returned to the United States, a series of events prompted them to try selling this eco-friendly paper locally.
“We opened up a booth in the farmers’ market in downtown Minneapolis, where…the Fair-Trade Movement was just starting to get moving. People liked our product! They thought it was really cute. [In] the following years, I basically quit my job, and I decided to see if we could turn this into something real. So we started working on getting design teams together, and trying to put some artisan work on the items so it gives a little more value to the paper, rather than just making books out of dung-paper. And that’s how we started.”
From a local farmers’ market in Minneapolis, Dr. Wald and Thusitha Ranasinghe have expanded their product to small stores like Bona Fide Green Goods throughout the United States and other countries.
“It’s really the perfect product for a store like ours,” said Debby de Moulpied. “It’s sustainable. It makes the three r’s of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle.’”
“In the past, about 5% of our dung was coming from wild elephants,” Dr. Wald explained. “[Now] most of our dung comes from the Pinnawala elephant orphanage in Sri Lanka, where they have semi-domesticated elephants. And when I say ‘semi-domesticated,’ they’re not being used for the tourist rides or anything. They’re basically brought up to the river and then back to the jungle, and people watch them.”
“We get some printer waste, and then we get some paper from the village. So it’s made from newspaper, cardboard, and then cleaned fiber from [elephant dung]. All dyes are natural dyes, vegetable dyes. The binding process is done by all-natural means. If our paper is put out into the sun, some of the color will fade. We don’t use any harsh chemicals to fix the paper. Everything is hand-made.”
Debby explained that the store uses one of Ellie Pooh’s journals as their email-list sign-up at the cash register. “People are always surprised by how the ink flows nicely on it. [They] really like that quality. It’s not just that it’s something novel.”
“And I’ll point out, ‘See the little grass bits that the elephant would have ingested?’” She laughed. “And so, it’s just kind of fun.”
While many people in the U.S. might not be familiar with paper made from dung, Dr. Wald pointed out that a number of other dung-paper companies have formed over the past decade.
“Most poo paper comes out of Thailand,” he said. “They have a lot of resources, and they have a lot of tourism there. We want [our program] to be just a little bit different. [Our] idea was to promote education about Sri Lanka’s wild elephants.”
When asked if there have been any challenges along the way, he responded, “You need to get money. Capital is always a problem–for every small business, I imagine.”
He described the fear his family had regarding what, inevitably, all businesses do at some time or another: make mistakes.
“If you don’t have the finances to overcome those mistakes,” he said, “you’re going to run into new problems with capital and keeping the operation afloat. We’ve run into that throughout the years, and it’s been a difficult thing to control. But, we’re still around. We’ve been doing this for 9-10 years, so, it’s been great.”
“At our level, we never had any large investors or stores. We’re mostly selling to smaller stores. And we hire about 125 people in Sri Lanka. When I [first] started, there were about 20 [employees].”
But he was very frank. “We haven’t seen any [measurable] difference in actually saving elephants or conserving their habitat. Which is very sad to say. If you have about 100 people hired in the village, it’s not going to make a difference. If you have about 1000 [employees from that same village], then I think that the mindset of people would change. And that’s what we’re essentially trying to do, is trying to create that awareness.”
“Bit-by-bit?” I chimed in. “Little-by-little, correct?”
“Yeah, you know.” And here, humor crept into his voice: “If Costco ever decided they wanted eco-friendly products in there…”
“Our product is more than just a novelty product. We have a program that we’re passionate about and we want everybody to know about.”
“Making paper,” he said, “is a big deal.”
Find out more about Mr. Ellie Pooh here: http://mrelliepooh.com/
Visit Bona Fide Green Goods if you are in Concord, NH: http://www.bonafidegreengoods.com/
An Elephas maxiumus-sized THANK YOU to Debby de Moulpied of Bona Fide Green Goods and to Dr. Karl Wald of Mr. Ellie Pooh!
A look at elephant conservation, eco-friendly products and Fair Trade in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Two different companies create a product that make some squeamish and others delighted!
Mammoths: Ice Age Giants is currently on exhibit at the Natural History Museum, London. More information about this fascinating exhibit from the Field Museum, Chicago, with comments from experts at both museums.
Most people equate fossil discovery with digging on land. An exciting look at an entirely different way to find fossils with paleontologist and mammoth-expert, Dick Mol, from The Netherlands.
Please check back in the next few weeks!
In the previous post, Ronald Richards discussed the current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. In this post, he described what it is like to excavate fossils in that state.
Ronald Richards’ self-described “obsession” with fossils began when he was ten.
This interest only intensified when—at age 12—he discovered scientific books on the subject. He found his first bone in a cave when he was 16; he published his first paper as an undergraduate.
And when he arrived at the Indiana State Museum, he took an interest in the fossils within its collection that had yet to be studied, publishing a paper of his research. This was when he began to focus on proboscideans: the mammalian group to which mammoths and mastodons belong.
Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons has enabled Ron and his team at the museum to share extensive knowledge of these extinct animals with visitors.
He summarized the three main points of this exhibit about Indiana proboscideans: “They’re everywhere, we’ve dug them, and it’s fun science.”
Ron noted that the fact that people from the State Museum actively excavate fossils is a surprise to many visitors.
“I’d say we’ve salvaged or had a full dig—and most of it’s a full dig—on 16 sites in all different parts of Indiana,” he explained. “Most are northern Indiana. That’s the formerly glaciated area, where the glaciers stagnated. They left behind all these blocks of ice, and they melted. All these former glacial lakes fill up with sediment and mud and plant vegetation and bones of mastodons! And so up north we have a lot more complete skeletons.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Image of Bothwell mastodon dig, 2005.]
“There is a lot of science going on. We’re still dealing with site preservation: you know, interpretation, cataloging, trying to get profiles, dates and all that.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Close-up of Bothwell mastodon jaw, 2005. Water is sprayed on the fossils to prevent them from drying out.]
Excavating fossils is not an easy process, nor is it something one can plan in advance. Many of the fossils excavated by the museum were found by members of the public, digging for peat moss, for example, or when building a pond on private property.
“My general rule to the landowner is: we’re not going to lay one shovel in the ground until we determine ownership,” Ron said.
“We can’t help a private land owner solve their problem on public funds,” he explained further. “We can do it if we get the skeleton. If we can handle it, we can dig it. We cannot dig it and have them get the skeleton. That would be a misuse of public funds.”
“So, we always have a deed-of-gift before we go in and understand that everything we find—all remains, all samples and this and that—will be donated to the state museum or sold for a certain amount. And we’ve had to do that a couple times. There’s always a written agreement.”
Confusion amongst the general public remains constant about bones found within Indiana. The truth is that, while there are strict rules in place for archaeological artifacts, there are none for those related to paleontology.
“[Archaeological laws are] very tough in Indiana. If a person were to go and systematically try to dig up an archaeological site–even on their own property to recover those artifacts–they are in big trouble,” said Ron. “The conservation officers can move anywhere in the state of Indiana. They don’t even need to have permits. They can come onto your property, and they can investigate.”
Not so with fossils. And as such, if a person finds any on their land, it is within their rights to attempt to sell it.
“We try to get people NOT to sell them on eBay, bone-by-bone, to the highest bidder,” Ron continued, “because it’s part of our heritage. But [fossils are] still not protected by law.”
Remarkably, about 85% of the fossils in the Indiana State Museum were donated.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Notice the orange tint of this mastodon humerus. This color indicates a fresh bone, pictured right after uncovering it. Bones change color from the moment they are excavated. Benedict mastodon, 2008.]
Some might equate digging for fossils with dry, hard rock. But this is not always the case, and certainly not in Indiana.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Lewis mastodon dig, 2006.]
Unlike excavations in the drier Western regions of the country, digging in Indiana means one will need to de-water the site. In other words, the appropriate type of pumps are necessary to remove the water, another pit needs to be dug in order to contain that water, a substantial amount of gas needs to be purchased to run those pumps, and volunteer diggers can expect to work in wet and muddy conditions.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]
Ron explained that he will try to encourage a landowner to enable them to dig in the drier months of the year, but it is not always possible.
Describing digs in either April or October, he noted that “you’ve got people in water screens all day with big fire hoses, and they’re soaking wet. That’s not the time to be cold. We’ve screened with icicles hanging off of our raincoats.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Here, volunteers skim the surface with their shovels a few inches at a time. Removed soil is screened for small remains. When a large bone is found, excavators stop shoveling and get down on their knees with their trowels. Day mastodon dig, 2006.]
“I don’t enjoy the process,” Ron admitted, referring to organizing and leading a dig site. “Anybody on the dig that doesn’t have to run it, does.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Benedict mastodon spine, 2008.]
“It’s one of the most stressful things you can do. You have to let go what you’re doing if you can, do the dig while all the same deadlines are still backing up at the museum. Everybody needs other things from you, so it’s a highly stressful time usually before we launch [a dig].”
“When we’re there, it’s not bad.”
“But when you get back,” he said, “it’s horrible.” And then chuckled.
“I feel we really do some satisfying things, we do some important things, but I don’t have time to have fun doing it. It’s a rare moment, you know, usually at the end of the dig, [when] I can finally relax, and say, ‘Wow, we did it.’”
“So it’s satisfaction. Great satisfaction. But it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing.”
The number of fossils collected, the new facility in which they are stored at the Indiana State Museum, and the way in which they are preserved impressed neighboring paleontologists Dr. Chris Widga and Dr. Jeffrey Saunders of the Illinois State Museum. They visited as part of a research project regarding proboscideans and extinction within the Midwest.
Dr. Widga outlines that research in his first blog post about it on Backyard Paleo:
“We started a project in 2011 to better understand 1) when mammoths and mastodonts went extinct, and 2) the ecological mechanisms that might have played a major role in how they went extinct. The major foundation of this project is a museum-by-museum survey of mammoths and mastodonts in collections from nine states and one province (MN, WI, IA, MO, IL, IN, OH, KY, MI, and ON). Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve documented mammoths and mastodonts from 576 localities.”
Dr. Widga and Dr. Saunders anticipated a relatively short visit, but the depth of the Indiana collection caused them to stay longer.
“We’re not really driving a lot of research,” explained Ron of the Indiana State Museum, “but we’re driving some of the best collections.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139C 71.3.226 Anderson A]
“I really just have to do the best job with discovery and preservation in Indiana and get general site reports out, with dates and all that, so we can really document it,” he said. “Basically it’s like a crime lab! You have the crime, and you have to gather all the evidence you’re going to need. They didn’t know 50 years ago that they needed to save samples for DNA, you see? But I know that.”
He alluded to possible future scientific improvements in paleontology, and how the samples he preserves now might be able to help new generations of scientists learn more.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139D 71.3.226 Anderson B]
“So my focus is doing a good job, with documenting and preserving and interpreting, what we’ve found in Indiana.”
“And the bigger high-level stuff,” he concluded, “that’s for the people like Dan Fisher.”
Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/
Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: now through August 17th, 2014 in Indianapolis! http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278
You can read more about Dr. Widga’s and Dr. Saunder’s project here: http://backyardpaleo.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/midwestern-mammoths-and-mastodonts-the-m-cubed-project/
Once again, a Mammuthus-Columbi-sized THANK YOU to Ron Richards. His generosity, his time, and his enthusiasm were wonderful. What a great honor and pleasure speaking with him!
The current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum is the brainchild of paleobiologist, Ronald Richards.
In a phone interview, he discussed the evolution of this exhibit; excavating fossils in Indiana; and working with neighboring proboscidean experts: Dr. Chris Widga, Dr. Jeffrey Saunders and Dr. Dan Fisher.
Chances are, most people—upon seeing the image below—would describe these animals as ‘woolly mammoths.’
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, more info at the end of the blog post*]
And many would not point to the state of Indiana as a rich source of these fossils.
Which are two of the myriad reasons behind the creation of Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons, an exhibit currently available at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, title wall of the exhibit]
The exhibit opened this past November, but it has taken years of hard work, as well as numerous people and resources, to bring it to fruition.
“It’s a process that consumes your life,” said Ron Richards by phone, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “It consumed me for a couple years. I mean, there’s always a deadline; there’s always something you haven’t got done.”
“It’s not for the frail, I’ll tell you,” he added with a chuckle.
Ron Richards, Paleobiologist at the State Museum, had the idea for the exhibit back in the 1990s.
Thirty years of work there—a job that involves both educating the public and excavating fossils—has provided plenty of fodder for potential displays.
He remarked how often, after giving talks about local fossils, people would approach him in wonder and say, “THIS was found in Indiana??”
With gentle enthusiasm—a cadence that accentuated his descriptions—Ron described what he hoped visitors would take away from the exhibit: how to tell the difference between mammoths and mastodons, the age and gender of such fossils, a better understanding of the habitat that was Indiana during the time of the Pleistocene, and the knowledge that people at the museum are actively digging up these fossils within the state.
So what exactly is the difference between a mammoth and a mastodon?
Almost universally, the word ‘mammoth’ invokes but one of 160 known mammoth species: the woolly mammoth.
The most common mammoth fossils throughout the United States, however, are that of the Columbian mammoth—a veritable behemoth that probably did not have the same furry coat as their woolly relatives and tended to live in warmer climates.
Woolly mammoth fossils are found largely in the upper parts of North America, as well as in Russia, Europe and China.
In sum: when you think of woolly mammoths, think cold. When you think of Columbian mammoths, think warm.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Teeth are an easy way to determine whether a fossil is a mammoth or a mastodon. This is a mammoth tooth. Notice the flat surface with ridges for grinding vegetation.]
Mastodons—the mammoth’s stockier, and, compared to some mammoth species, shorter and hairier cousin—also lived throughout the United States.
Physically, mastodons differ from mammoths in that their backs and their tusks are straighter, their teeth are easily recognizable as teeth (they are bumpy), and their heads are generally smaller.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Above is a mastodon tooth.]
Yet the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon are often confused.
According to Mammoths & Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Dr. Adrian Lister, “in their detailed adaptations and their evolutionary position [the American mastodon and the woolly mammoth] were as distinct as a human and a monkey, separated by at least 25 million years of evolution.” (Firefly Books, 2014, pg. 42)
Still, faced with a large skeleton with tusks, four legs, and a short tail, most would immediately assume ‘mammoth’.
[Can you tell which skeleton is a mammoth and which is a mastodon? Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]
How does one pull together so much information–so many possible ideas–into a coherent and engaging learning experience for the public?
“Even I, when I walk through an exhibit, I don’t want to read very much,” confessed Ron. “You have to find a real good balance.”
“One day,” he continued, “we just cut out all the [potential exhibit] labels, and we laid them out in a whole big room. Then we lay down the images of all the proposed specimens. There were about 300! And I realized that when someone walks through this, they want a 45-minute or an hour tour on a 5,000-foot space. How much can we tell them?
“So I just walked through and dictated [the narrative] as though I were giving a special tour for somebody…a VIP… of the exhibit. I timed it to about 45 – 50 minutes. And actually then we converted it into text, more or less.”
Doing so caused him to further realize, “Hey, there just isn’t time to talk about all these little things.”
“We had some high hopes, but it came down to, well, we just can’t do all that. It’s very expensive. We haven’t got the money. We can’t fit it all in. And we’d never get it done.”
He paused for a moment to recall the wise words of an archaeologist with whom he’d worked: ‘There are great projects, and there are finished projects.’
“I understood,” he continued, “that this could go on for a long time. And we really just had to get it done, because it had been dragging since 1990.”
The centerpiece of this exhibit is the Buesching mastodon—a nearly complete male mastodon fossil discovered in Indiana in 1998. It was found on land belonging to Janne and Fred Buesching. The fossil has been nicknamed “Fred”, in honor of Mr. Buesching, who has since passed away.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, Buesching mastodon skull. Pictured from left to right are: Ronald Richards, Dan Buesching, who originally discovered the fossil, and Janne Buesching, Dan’s mother.]
“One advantage we have with an in-house exhibit—and there have been a lot of mammoth and mastodon exhibits out there—is that normally they have to work with casts (as they’re transporting them, and you can’t have curators go with them). Because [our exhibit is] in-house, we used mainly REAL bone. That is a big difference. And the other is that we focus right on Indiana.”
The Buesching mastodon exemplifies this: it was mounted using its actual bones. This feat was accomplished with the help of people at the NY State Museum, who had demonstrated that this could be done on a fossil of their own.
[Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum, installing Fred]
Ron noted another striking distinction: the legs of this mastodon were brought in, mimicking the pose of a fossil cast of this same animal done by proboscidean expert Dr. Daniel Fisher.
Prior to making its home at the Indiana State Museum, the Buesching mastodon was studied by Dr. Fisher at the University of Michigan. The Bueschings had initially contacted Dr. Fisher when the fossil was found.
“He went down and gave them some pointers, some assessments of the site,” Ron explained, “and after that, Dan said, ‘Boy, I’d really like to study this’, so they shipped it up to him.”
“At that point, he took it on. He actually made some casts of Fred.”
“He brought the legs underneath the animal like mastodons and elephants walk. Normally, [museums] stand their skeletons like a bulldog, with their legs real wide. Not only does he understand modern elephants and how they move, but he also has a track-way [of proboscidean footprints] from Michigan to prove it!”
“So he brought the legs in under the animal. And he brought the front ribs together on the chest bone.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the Buesching mastodon as it appears in the exhibit]
“It’s really a piece of art,” he concluded of the Buesching mastodon.
The exhibit contains a wealth of information and exciting fossil displays. Among other things, one can see a simulated dig pit with real bones as they might have been found, casts of mastodon and mammoth jaws that mechanically demonstrates how they worked, and examples of some of the bones discovered in Indiana.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the Hall of Giants--Ron Richards' favorite par of the exhibit]
There is discussion regarding the theories behind the mammoth and mastodon extinctions: hunted too heavily by people? Disease? Rapid environmental change?
There is even an audio and video panel designed to give visitors an idea of what it might have been like to hunt a mammoth.
‘So you think you can hunt a mammoth with a spear, huh?’ says a label near a metal spear.
Touching the spear triggers a large screen to initiate an image of a mammoth. The floor underneath the visitor begins to vibrate with the sound of an animal charging, as the image of the mammoth becomes larger and larger.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, metal spear and the growing image of a mammoth charging toward the visitor]
Said Ron of that particular display, “I wanted [visitors] to get an emotional charge!”
And to give visitors a sense of just how many fossil sites have been discovered in Indiana, the team at the museum created an interactive map.
“You can push buttons and see where all the mammoths and mastodons were found [throughout the state.] We’ve got about 300 dots for mammoths and mastodons.”
“There could be another couple hundred,” he continued, referring to more data from ongoing research that is not included on the exhibit map. “I’ve been doing this research for years, even before [working at] the museum, so I’ve got a lot of dots on maps.”
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, interactive map of Indiana, displaying various fossil sites]
That number is extraordinary.
Given how many fossils have been found locally, one might wonder why this is a temporary—rather than a permanent—exhibit.
“We’re a state museum,” Ron responded. “So we deal with archaeology, paleontology, geology, biology and natural history. We’ve got Amish quilts; we’ve got fine art; we’ve got sports history; [general] history; popular culture; science and technology; applied technology. We’ve got curators in all these areas. We’ve only got so much rotating space. And there are other stories. And we’ve got to constantly bring people in the door.”
“I wanted to have a 2-year exhibit,” he continued, referring to the Ice Age exhibit, “but we have granting and funding for a lot of things that need to fill that space. I think our exhibit schedules are set for 5 years out.”
“If I had my druthers, I’d say, ‘let’s leave it in for 2 years.’ But then it starts tapering down. After a while, everybody has sort of already seen it.”
Included in this exhibit is information regarding today’s elephants, a distant relative of mammoths and mastodons, not a direct descendant. Elephants are in danger of extinction themselves.
[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the plight of elephants today]
This particular part of the exhibit is important to Ron, but he paused to ponder some of the conflicts between people and elephants.
“It’s hard to talk to other cultures and countries and tell them how they should take care of THEIR wildlife,” he mused. “I mean, you look back at North America, and you look at what happened to bison, and the passenger pigeon, and you know, we’ve been through this ourselves until we had conservation laws.”
“Look at how abundant deer are today, but the white-tailed deer were extirpated from Indiana by 1891. They were hunted out. There were none left. And they were all reintroduced [later].”
“Without regulation, you get hunted out into extermination.”
*Initial image in the blog post is of mastodons.
Part 2, discussing fossil excavations in Indiana, coming up next!
Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/
Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278 — on exhibit now through August 17, 2014!
Online Repository of Fossils, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan: (which features interactive images of the Buesching mastodon, among many others!) http://umorf.ummp.lsa.umich.edu/wp/
An enormous THANK YOU to Ron Richards for his incredibly generous time, enthusiasm and patience with my many questions!! An equally enormous thank you to Bruce Williams!
Almost 30 years ago, Kathy Wankel discovered a few bones while vacationing with her family. Bringing these bones to the Museum of the Rockies, Montana—instead of keeping them–enabled paleontologists to uncover a rare, almost complete T. Rex skeleton.
This week, that fossil moves to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey (Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies), Dr. David Varricchio (Associate Professor at Montana State University) and Julie Price (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) describe the discovery of the Wankel T-Rex, the challenges of excavating fossils, and the reasons behind this week’s transition.
(image of the bronze cast of the Wankel T.Rex, known as “Big Mike”, image courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies)
Labor Day weekend, 1988, the Wankel family vacationed at Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana, near the Badlands.
Kathy Wankel and her husband, Tom, were taking a moment to look for fossils on a nearby island.
And Kathy actually found a few bones.
“I would like to confess up-front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing,” wrote Kathy Wankel in an email, referring to the fossil that has come to be known as the “Wankel T. Rex.”
“And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious ‘rock hound’ and was fascinated by the Badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck Reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say ‘a fossil,’ by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!”
We know now that what she found was absolutely extraordinary: at the time, it was one of only eleven T.Rex fossils ever found, most of which were not as complete as what she had discovered.
But on that weekend, they just knew they had dinosaur bones. Neither the species nor the size of the fossil was apparent.
Kathy described the discovery in detail.
“My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.
“Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right, and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said ‘You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!’
“The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones, but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’ I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.
“I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’ I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to. “ – Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T.Rex
“We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity, and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.”
The Wankels took the bones to the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman, where paleontologists Jack Horner and Pat Leiggi recognized the bones as the shoulder and arm bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex.
These relatively fragile bones had never been recovered before.
As Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators, explained, “At the time it was discovered, the specimen had the best (most complete) T. rex arm ever discovered. Those little arms just don’t preserve very well in contrast to all the rest of the skeleton which is much more robust.”
He emphasizes the importance of what the Wankels did with the bones they’d discovered.
“The bones were found by amateur [fossil hunters] who did the right thing: they called a museum.”
This is a choice not everyone makes.
One has but to look at the controversy surrounding Sue, another T. Rex skeleton found in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson, or review fossils available for sale online. The United States as a whole has no definitive law regarding fossils found on land outside of that owned by Federal agencies. [*Per Paul Rubenstein at USACE, there is a law regarding Federal lands: the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011] These laws are left to each state. Hence, some states within the US have laws protecting paleontological finds; others do not.
When asked what prompted her to bring the bones to MOR, Kathy wrote in an email, “I knew that the Museum of the Rockies had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.”
“The bones stayed in our basement,” she continued, “until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our ‘find’ to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found.
“Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look, and with big eyes said, ‘You’d better come with me!’ Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!”
Below is a timeline of the events that followed, as described in The Complete T. Rex by Jack Horner and Don Lessem:
- Labor Day weekend, 1988: Kathy Wankel discovers the bones
- May 1989: paleontologists from MOR accompany the Wankels to the place of discovery
- September 1989: additional paleontologists return to this site for further digging and review
- June 1990: actual excavation of the fossil begins
Someone who is neither a paleontologist nor familiar with fossil digs might wonder why more than a year passed before the full excavation began.
Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, explained further.
“When you find fossils on the surface of the ground,” she said in a phone interview, “you don’t know if they’re the first bones of an entire skeleton underground, whether they’re the first bones to ‘weather out,’ or if they’re the last bones and everything else is gone. I mean, you just don’t know. So when you find something, you kind of poke around and see if there’s more. Because you don’t know at which stage you’re finding that specimen.”
In other words, there is always a chance that no further bones exist.
The paleontologists who explored the site in May 1989 thought there might indeed be more below the surface. This is what prompted a second crew, she added, to go out that September–once the tourist season in the area had passed–and try to discover even more.
“That’s when we found significant parts of the animal,” she said.
But even knowing that more bones exist underground does not necessarily accelerate the dig. There are challenges to excavating fossils.
It is never a quick process, and one must take into account the climate of the area, the logistics of assembling a crew—the people and equipment needed—and the constraints of scientists who are generally working on limited budgets with limited time. Not to mention the accessibility (or lack thereof) of the site itself.
“The land is so inhospitable,” Sheldon McKamey explained of the Badlands, “It’s hard to get things. We find things occasionally that we would love to collect, but there’s no way to get them out. The land really dictates what you can collect.”
“The land really dictates what you can collect.” – Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT
(Badlands near Hell Creek, Montana, photo by Alan Majchrowicz, courtesy Getty Images)
According to Jack Horner and Don Lessem (The Complete T. Rex), the crew needed “an antiquities permit” from the landowners—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)–in order to excavate there. The USACE representatives with whom they spoke were “unbelievably cooperative.”
Julie Price, the USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager, offered additional information about this ownership.
“The land where the Wankel T. Rex was discovered was acquired for the Ft. Peck Dam and Ft. Peck Lake by the 1935 Rivers and Harbors Act,” she wrote in an email. “Basically, the Federal Government acquired lands necessary to construct the dam and impound the waters of the reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the land-managing agency for the lands surrounding Ft. Peck Lake.”
“Nationally,” she added, “USACE manages 12 million acres of public land and waters, which includes 54,800 miles of shoreline, 7,700 miles of trails and 92,800 campsites.”
When Kathy Wankel found the bones, the area was an island. When paleontologists returned to dig, the water level had dropped.
One might be surprised to know that the USACE generously bulldozed a road into the area in order to help paleontologists access the dig site and then help remove the fossil once excavated.
“This excavation was quite unique as this fossil was not found by a paleontologist with a permit to search and/or excavate on federal land, but a happenstance discovery by a member of the public,” Julie Price wrote. “Since the specimen was located on USACE-managed lands, it was the responsibility of the USACE (federal agency) to preserve and protect the fossil. At the time of excavation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the capability to assist with heavy equipment needed for the road construction. However, several entities donated time, effort, equipment and professional expertise. The significance of this find spurred all entities to come together to ensure proper preservation and care of the fossil.”
This includes Sheldon McKamey’s brother, Bill, who drove his flatbed semi over 300 miles to the site and then—with sections of the fossil, plastered for protection and ready to travel—another 360 miles to the museum once the excavation was completed. Tom Wankel also helped with his grain-truck.
Dr. David Varricchio described his experience as a member of the excavation crew.
“I was a grad student at the time,” he wrote, “and had worked at a few dinosaur sites before. These were mostly bone-beds of disarticulated skeletons. So, when we got the whole skeleton uncovered and could stand back and look at it as it lay in the ground….that was incredibly impressive. Even though it was dead a long time ago, it still was awe-inspiring and really fit the word ‘dinosaur’. Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”
“Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”—Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators
“We tried to keep the site location a secret, or at least, told as few people as possible in an effort to avoid unwanted visitors,” Dr. Varricchio continued. “So, we were startled one day to see a truck rumbling towards us in the distance.”
“As it got closer, we were further surprised to see that it was a FedEx truck.”
“We all watched in wonder, scratching our heads, as it continued to drive all the way to the site. The driver got out and said, ‘I’ve got a package for Greg Erickson.’ Greg, currently a paleontologist at Florida State University, was a fellow grad student also working on the site. I don’t remember what it was he got.”
With some amusement, Dr. Varricchio recalled, “The driver had asked in town, and they gave him directions. Apparently, everyone knew where we were.”
No small feat in an expanse of land that is remarkably unpopulated and difficult to access.
And the need for secrecy, sadly, makes sense. Fossil theft and damage–then and now—is a very real concern.
Sheldon McKamey, hired by MOR as Director of Marketing in 1987, highlighted this by stating that “if you’d uncovered bones and then left them, anybody could’ve stopped there and scavenged them or damaged them.” She noted that once excavation began, people remained at the site to protect them.
“We knew this was a big deal,” Sheldon McKamey said, “We’d done a lot of advance press on it. We had a NOVA crew coming out to do a documentary on it. And we wanted to have a ‘public day’, so the people that wanted to see it from the surrounding area, or the legislators, or whoever could come. As we dug it up, we knew that we couldn’t put it in plaster until people had a chance to see it.”
“As soon as the press day was over, we started jacketing everything, and it takes a long time to do that.”
Since the excavation, researchers at the Museum of the Rockies have prepared the bones so that they appear in-situ, a process that took years to complete. A bronze cast of the skeleton–upright and complete, as it may have appeared in life–has been greeting museum visitors for years at the entrance to the museum.
This week, however, the fossil is moving to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The move was originally set to take place in October 2013, but this was rescheduled due to the government shut-down.
When asked why the decision to move the fossil was made, Julie Price responded, “The Wankel T. Rex will always remain the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Smithsonian Institute approached the Museum of the Rockies and USACE about a long-term loan agreement for the Wankel T. Rex to be showcased in their new exhibit in Washington, DC.”
“USACE, the Museum and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state. Through a collaborative effort with all entities,” she explained, “USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation. The Wankel T. Rex will be on display in the new 31,000 square foot exhibit space within the National Museum of Natural History and available to eight million visitors annually. Additionally, this specimen will increase research opportunities for scientists and scholars nationwide.”
“USACE, the Museum [of the Rockies] and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state. Through a collaborative effort with all entities, USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation.”—Julie Price, USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager
Sheldon McKamey concurs.
“It’s such a wonderful specimen that we’re sharing. We agreed that it should be shared with everybody at the Smithsonian.”
“We have a second US Army Corps of Engineers specimen in our collection, and that one we’re going to mount in the next year or so and put on display at the Museum of the Rockies. So, people will see one here, and they’ll see one at the Smithsonian.”
“The fact is,” she continued, “we’re a research institution, and we got significant data from it. And we don’t collect things just for display. So this is something that I think will benefit a lot of people. And we know that it’s always going to say at the label at the Smithsonian that it’s the Wankel T. Rex, and the museum’s name is going to be a part of that. That’s pretty significant.”
When asked if he was surprised about the fossil move, Dr. Varricchio replied, “Not really. It was collected on federal land, so technically it belongs to the people of the US, and so it seems natural that it would go to the Smithsonian. Plus, MOR has collected a couple more [T.Rex fossils]; our shelves are pretty full. DC is a wonderful place for many people from the US and abroad to get to see it.”
But Kathy Wankel has a slightly different opinion.
“We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC,” she wrote. “We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as ‘The Nation’s T. Rex.’ The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.”
The Wankel T. Rex begins its journey to D.C. on April 11th. Events are planned at the Smithsonian on April 15th to celebrate its arrival.
And how does one move a fossil of that size across the country?
Apparently, the Smithsonian has contracted the very same company that surprised the crew during the dig.
It will be moved by a FedEx truck.
Full Q&A with Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T. Rex:
1. Were you looking for fossils when you found the bones? Do you want to describe how you found them?
I would like to confess up front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing. And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious “rock hound” and was fascinated by the badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say “a fossil”, by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!
We found our T. Rex Labor Day weekend of 1988. My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.
Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said “You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!”
The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited and exclaimed to Tom “I think this is a MEGA-FIND”! I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.
We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.
2. What prompted you to bring them to the Museum of the Rockies?
I knew that the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.
The bones stayed in our basement until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our “find” to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found. Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look and with big eyes said “You’d better come with me!” Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!
3. You discovered the bones in 1988, but the actual dig didn’t begin until 1990. There is a very cute passage in The Complete T-Rex (Jack Horner/Don Lessem, as I’m sure you know!) that describes the paleontologists asking you to keep the info about the fossil “under your hat”, and your husband said he thought a “bigger hat” was needed.
Yes, Tom got a bigger hat…a ten gallon cowboy hat …and we were able to keep the site a secret. In the summer of 1989, Tom and I led Pat Leiggi and Ken Carpenter from MOR along with a US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) representative to the site. Pat and Ken explored and decided there may be more of the skeleton embedded there. It must have taken some time to get the proper government approvals completed and time to gather enough financial resources for MOR to send a field crew later that summer. The excavation was started in the summer of 1989 and was completed in 1990.
4. Do you want to comment on your feelings or any surprises you experienced throughout those years, from discovery to full excavation?
It has been a wonderful learning experience for our entire family. We have met (and continue to meet) wonderfully interesting people, have been interviewed by CBS This Morning with Paula Zahn, numerous newspapers and magazines, were in a PBS/NOVA documentary as well as other documentaries, and even a family trip to Los Angeles to appear on a game show “To Tell the Truth”!
5. Have you and your family visited the T. Rex at MOR over the years? Were you already a dinosaur-fan or did the discovery prompt you to learn more about them?
Yes, our family visits MOR frequently whenever we are in Bozeman. We have been witness to MOR developing from a small building in 1988 to the world-class museum that it is today.
6. Were you surprised that the T-Rex is going to DC, and how do you feel about it?
We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC. We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as “The Nation’s T Rex”. The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.
7. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like people to know?
Twenty members of our extended family are making the trip to Washington DC. for the Wankel T. Rex reception events at the Smithsonian. What great memories for our entire family!
I would like to extend a T. Rex-sized ‘Thank you!’ to Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey, Dr. David Varricchio, Julie Price, Mark Robinson, and Kevin Ropp! What a great pleasure and honor!!
Thank you to Paul Rubenstein at USACE for informing me of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011!
You can follow the fossil’s move to DC on Twitter: #trexroadtrip
Interested in supporting current fossil digs or paleontological research? Check your local museum and see how you can help!
Find out more about the Museum of the Rockies: http://museumoftherockies.org/
The fossil is moving to the Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH): https://www.mnh.si.edu/
More info on USACE, per Julie Price:
“USACE owns other fossils.
“Those fossils are managed by the local USACE District offices administering the lands from which they are discovered. These local USACE offices are assisted and provided with technical support by the Corps Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections Center (CMAC) in St. Louis.
“The Center which was created by USACE in 1994 is responsible for curation of archaeological materials, curation of associated documentation, collections management, collections management database development and special purpose design and construction requirements of curation facilities. The Center also assists other Army major commands, Department of Defense services and agencies, and other federal, state, and local government agencies.
More information is available here http://www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Missions/CentersofExpertise/CurationMgmtofArchaeologicalCollections.aspx”
Every three to four years, mammoth experts and scientists from all over the world congregate for several days to discuss the most recent findings and cutting-edge discoveries.
This year, that event takes place in Greece.
This location is particularly fitting, not only for its exciting mammoth and mastodon finds (including the world’s largest tusks found to-date), but also because the name of the mammalian Order to which mammoths belong is derived from a Greek word: proboskis (προβοσκίδα).
The name Proboscidea–from proboscis (trunk)—aptly describes some of its more popular members: today’s elephants and yesterday’s mastodons and mammoths.
This marks the 6th time this conference has been held. It is not an annual event, nor is it necessarily held in the same location or on the same continent.
This year’s honorary president is a US-based scientist: Dr. Larry Agenbroad, from the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.
(Image of Dr. Larry Agenbroad with short-faced bear replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad)
The president of the conference is Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Thessaloniki, and one of the team of paleontologists who excavated the largest tusks mentioned above.
The vice president is Dr. George Theodorou, Professor of Palaeontology and Stratigraphy at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.
The list of scientists and experts involved in this event is both impressive and exciting. Among so many others, (there were too many to mention here, but you can find them at this link) some of the participating specialists are:
- Dr. Paul Bahn, British archaeologist and co-author of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age with Dr. Adrian Lister;
- Dr. Daniel Fisher, Professor at the University of Michigan, Curator and Director at the Museum of Paleontology, Michigan, mammoth-tusk expert, and one of the original scientists to study Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date;
- Dr. Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum, London and dwarf mammoth expert;
- Dr. Frédéric Lacombat, paleontologist at the Musée Crozatier, France, and president of the Vth International Mammoth Conference, 2010;
- Dr. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, London and author of the two most comprehensive books on mammoths published in English;
- Dick Mol, mammoth expert from the Netherlands who has been involved in mammoth research and discoveries for decades, and one of the paleontologists who excavated the tusks in Greece with Dr. Tsoukala;
- Dr. Doris Nagel of the Institute of Palaeontology, University of Vienna;
- Dr. Maria Rita Palombo of the Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza;
- Dr. Alexei Tikhonov, Deputy Director of the Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg, Scientific Secretary of the Mammoth Committee, Russian Academy of Sciences, and also one of the scientists who originally studied Lyuba;
- Dr. Haowen Tong, Adjunct Professor of the Graduate University, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
(Image of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista, Municipality of Voion, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)
Evangelos Vlachos, a PhD student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and one of the many organizers of the event very generously responded to my questions.
1. What will your PhD be in and what is your doctoral thesis? How did you become involved in the Mammoth Conference?
I am doing my PhD on Vertebrate Paleontology, specifically on the study of turtles and tortoises from Greece.
But what is a “turtle guy” doing at the Mammoth Conference?
Well, being part of Evangelia Tsoukala’s team includes excavating for proboscideans, including some of the biggest ever lived. In my first years of study, I considered working with fossil proboscideans, but later I changed to the study of chelonians.
My first experience with the Mammoth Conference was at the Vth Mammoth Conference in Le Puy-en-Velay, France in 2010. In Le Puy, the Greek side participated with many oral and poster presentations, and the scientific community had the chance to get familiar with the exciting proboscidean findings from Greece.
[Image of poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team during the Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]
2. How wonderful that the Mammoth Conference is held in Greece this year! How was the decision to hold it in Greece made?
Indeed, it is wonderful, but it was sudden!
Normally, at the end of each conference, the Organizing Committee examines all of the available proposals and decides where the next Mammoth Conference will be held.
In Le Puy, the Organizing Committee decided that Anchorage, Alaska would host the VIth Mammoth Conference in May 2013. Although the scientific community was excited to visit this remote place, which has played an important role in the history of the mammoths, things didn’t work out.
In the beginning of 2014, new proposals were requested. Within a few days, we filed a proposal to host the next conference in the historic towns of West Macedonia, Grevena and Siatista, which have brilliant collections of fossil proboscideans.
Luckily, our proposal was accepted, and we are honored to host the next conference in Greece.
[Children making their own mammoth under the guidance of the Dutch artist Remie Bakker, during the opening ceremony of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista. Similar events are going to be held during the conference (2011, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]
3. Who organizes this conference and who determines the president of the conference? (Do the organizers change each year?)
The organization of the conference is the responsibility of the Organizing Committee.
Some members are regular; they have been there since 1995 when the first conference was held in Saint Petersburg.
Specialists like Dick Mol provide the experience of organizing a Mammoth Conference and access to the network of the proboscidean scientific community.
Many people from the host country itself are involved to make sure that everything will be organized in detail. The organizers of the conference are supported by the Scientific Committee: specialists of various topics related to the conference. Their role is to consult the committee in scientific matters and to serve as reviewers of the abstracts and papers submitted to the conference.
This year, we are privileged to have a large Scientific Committee of 43 specialists from all fields related to proboscidean study. Moreover, in this conference, many young scientists are included in the Scientific Committee, which is very important for us. One of the goals of this conference is to ensure that the study of proboscideans will not only have a glorious past, but a great future as well.
4. Who typically attends this conference? Do you have an idea of how many people will be attending this year?
The Mammoth Conference attracts the interest of scientists from many different fields, but all joined by the interest of promoting knowledge surrounding proboscidean evolution.
Among the numerous participants, you will find paleontologists presenting new findings that improve our knowledge of the fossil record; geneticists examining the DNA of present-day elephants and from the frozen carcasses of the woolly mammoths; scientists applying new techniques like stable isotope and dental microwear analysis on proboscidean molars; archaeologists investigating the interaction between humans and proboscideans.
This is not all. At each conference, something new comes up!
Early registration for the participants closed on 31th of January 2014.
The interest of the proboscidean community in the VIth ICMR was enormous and far exceeded the expectations of the Organizing Committee!
We received more than 150 registrations from all corners of the world: from Cape Town, South Africa in the South to Stockholm, Sweden in the North; from Wollongong, Australia in the Southeast to Edmonton, Canada in the Northwest; from Kusatsu, Japan in the East to Nevada in the West; from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in South America to Yakutsk in Siberia. In total, all the participants will have to travel more than 11 times the circumference of Earth to come to Grevena and Siatista!
(Geographic representation of this year’s Mammoth Conference participants, image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR))
5. How does one decide what topics and papers will be discussed?
The Organizing Committee, in close co-operation with the Scientific Committee, set an initial number of topics to be discussed in the conference. They have to summarize the current open questions in the field.
Some of the topics, however, are “classical,” we could say, such as the information from soft tissues from the frozen carcasses, or the interaction between humans and mammoths.
At the same time, in every conference we are trying to promote the regional research by proposing topics that could stimulate researchers to come up with ideas. For example, in our conference, we are particularly interested in the “primitive” probiscidean proboscidean forms–before the appearance of mammoths–like the mastodons or gomphotheres.
Sometimes, the participants are able to propose new topics of interest. This was the case with our Brazilian colleagues, who suggested we have a session on extinct South American proboscideans that, until recently, have been relatively unknown.
6. What do you think is the most exciting part of the Mammoth Conference?
As a young scientist, the most exciting part is definitely to get to know all the well-known specialists in this field and exchange ideas with them.
Standing up in front of a well-qualified audience and presenting your ideas is a great challenge. But the experience you get is unique.
[Presenting in front of the world’s leading experts (Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France, 2010, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]
In the end, when you are returning to your country, you feel overwhelmed by the information you have received. But as the days go by, ideas start to form and with the experience gained by attending an International Conference, you can make good progress on your studies.
Science is not only reading and writing, but communicating your ideas.
[Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon. Now this specimen is part of the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia (2012, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]
Moreover, it is always exciting to take part in the field trips of the Conference.
In our conference, not only we will visit all of the impressive sites in Northern Greece, like Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida, but we have planned a unique post-conference field trip. The participants will travel to the remote island of Tilos where the last European elephants lived, as dwarf forms, in the Charkadio Cave. To reach this island, we will go through Athens and the world famous site of Pikermi.
[Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques. One of the sites that the participants will visit during the Field Sessions of the conference (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]
7. Are there any challenges to organizing or hosting the Mammoth Conference?
One word: logistics.
The amount of work needed to arrange everything–the registrations, the abstracts, transportation and accommodation, the field trips–is enormous. In those cases, especially when you have so many people from different countries and cultures, you need to pay attention to every detail to make sure that all will go according to plan.
But the Organizing Committee is working hard, night and day, to extend an example of traditional Greek hospitality to everyone involved!
8. Is there anything else that you would want people to know?
This week, members of the Organizing Committee visited the places where the conference will take place (Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida) and inspected all venues, exhibition and facilities. At the moment, everything is going according to plan and the Organizing Committee works day and night to make a wonderful conference for the participants.
(Image of the the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia, Municipality of Grevena, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)
I would like to extend an Archelon ischyros-sized thank you to Evangelos Vlachos for his lightning quick responses to my emails, his generosity and his detailed answers!
When he mentions that the Organizing Committee works night-and-day for this conference, he is not kidding. Some of our emails were exchanged at 3am his time!
Thank you, as well, to Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala and to Dick Mol, who also generously shared their time for this post (behind the scenes)!
Please check out the VI International Conference website: www.mammothconference.com
You can follow them on Twitter! @mammoths2014 / #mammoths2014
Videos on YouTube related to the Conference and excavating the world’s longest tusks from the mastodon in Greece!
(The video above is multilingual.)
It has been my great honor to have connected previously with two of the many mammoth experts listed above:
Dr. Daniel Fisher:
Dr. Larry Agenbroad: