The scuffling next to the riverbed had been going on for some time pre-dawn.  An occasional muted ‘yip!’ or angry bark accompanied an otherwise silent mass of activity. Something large had fallen, and several smaller creatures had taken interest.

As the sun started to rise, dappled sunlight painted patterns on everything around the forest floor nearby.  Ducks and geese swam peacefully at a distance. A sharp ‘plop!’ indicated the dive of a frog from shoreline vegetation.  And what had previously been a silhouetted mass of movement on the riverside now revealed a group of spotted hyenas, all focused on one thing: scavenging the carcass of an enormous mammoth.  

That might have been the scenario approximately 700,000 years ago in what is now West Runton in Norfolk–a village in England by the North Sea.

The first hint to this story occurred in 1990 when Margaret Hems spotted a fossil poking out of a cliff on the ocean shore.  She and her husband, Harold, had been fossil hunting after a storm, cognizant that this weather tended to reveal more of them in an area known for its fossils.  That fossil turned out to be a mammoth pelvis, and rather than take it out and keep it for themselves, they contacted the curator of the Cromer Museum.  That eventually led to excavations in 1992 and 1995, which then led to a 2-day conference at the Castle Museum in 2005, which then, in turn, produced a series of fascinating papers in 2010. Those papers detail everything from the sediment in which the fossils were found, the rich microfossils, the vertebrates and invertebrates found within, to the mammoth itself.  All of this paints a vivid story: an injured mammoth that may have died alongside an ancient freshwater ecosystem and was eventually scavenged by local carnivores.

The West Runton cliffs. You can see the layer of the West Runton Freshwater Bed in dark black at the very bottom. Photo credit: Anthony Stuart.

The discovery in 1990 was outstanding, providing a rare almost complete Mammuthus trongotherii, a type of mammoth that originated in Asia approximately 1.8 million years ago, migrated to Europe about a millions years later and lived throughout Eurasia until approximately 200,000 years ago.

“Fossils of early mammoth species like M. trogontherii (odd teeth or bones) are not uncommon but complete or largely complete skeletons are rare,” wrote Professor Adrian Lister, a well-known proboscidean expert and the editor, with Prof. Tony Stuart, of the Quaternary International volume on this set of papers.

We don’t know about the beginnings of this mammoth’s life, but we have significant clues about the end of it.  The 109 mammoth bones recovered at West Runton indicate it was an approximately 9-ton 41-year-old male, about 4-meters high at the shoulder.  For context, this is larger than today’s largest African elephants. This was an enormous beast.

Its bones were relatively healthy except for one major exception: the horribly disabled knee on its right hind limb.

Slideshow: 1. Jesminite resin replicas of the normal mammoth knee joint; 2. Jesminite resin replica of the abnormal (disarticulated) knee joint; 3. the abnormal distal end of the mammoth’s right femur; 4. the normal distal end of the femur. Photo credit: Eleanor Clarke.

Piecing together this paleopathology took considerable detective work.  The right femur was recovered; the right tibia was not. The distal end of the excavated femur was so abnormal, however, that it prompted further observation.  There was no evidence of degenerative joint disease in any of the other bones, and part of the hipbone indicates movement referred to in humans as the ‘Trendelburg’ gait. In other words, the bone remodeling suggests that the mammoth walked in a way that favored one side.  

And because the team didn’t have the tibia, they made a cast that mirrored the left tibia.  Images of the limb reconstruction show two bones terribly out of joint.  How it occurred is unknown.  Bull mammoths may have engaged in fighting, and this might have been an injury sustained in such an encounter.  But it might also have simply fallen and twisted its leg.  What is certain is that, not only had the mammoth survived the event that caused it, it lived with the deformity for quite some time.  Dr. Eleanor Clarke, who examined this paleopathology, indicates that the ruptured ligaments and any subsequent swelling in the knee would have been extremely painful.  Because the injury was in a hind limb versus a forelimb, where most of the animal’s weight is distributed, however, this wouldn’t have prevented the mammoth from moving.   

How the mammoth died is also unknown. Its disability may not have caused its death, but it may not have helped either. Dying at age 41, rather than at age 64 or so, is thought to be premature. 

Other fossils found within the Freshwater Bed prove that a variety of carnivores lived in the area.  The nearby forest was home to species of bear, the sabertooth cat Homotherium latidens, the European jaguar (Panthera gombaszoegensis), at least one wolf, a species of dog, hyenas and a large lion (Panthera leo). Of these carnivores, only hyena fossils were found in direct association with the mammoth fossils. In addition, their scat (in the form of coprolites, or fossilized poop) was found all around the mammoth fossil, and they left gnaw marks on a number of the mammoth bones.  (Hence, the story at the beginning of this post.)

It’s been 27 years since the excavations, 17 years since the workshop at the Castle Museum, and 12 years since the publication of the papers surrounding that workshop.  I asked Professor Adrian Lister and Nigel Larkin—two people who were involved in all three of these events—if anything stood out for them now, years later.  Prof. Lister is a palaeobiologist who researches patterns and processes of species-level evolution, adaptation and extinction. Nigel Larkin is a paleontologist with multiple hats: conservator, preparator, curator, and researcher. 

“The most remarkable thing that still stands out for me,” Prof. Lister expressed in an email, “is that we found the skeleton at all! Several bones had been unearthed in small-scale excavations in 1990-92, on the basis of which Tony Stuart made an educated guess that the rest of the skeleton might lie further back in the cliff at that point. He obtained substantial funding from the UK National Lottery, permissions from the landowners and local authorities (to cut a huge hole out of the cliff in an area where most effort is usually expended trying to stop the cliff eroding), and employed a large team of excavators and specialists. There might have been nothing there!! Or the skeleton might have been hiding from us just a few yards to the side of our excavation area! But it was there, and when the huge bones, skull and tusks gradually came to light it was an incredible sight – and a great relief!” 

For Nigel Larkin, there were three things that stood out: “The completeness of the find,” he explained in an email, “the totality of the excavation and the pathology. All three are very unusual.”

“Not only is this skeleton still the most complete example of its species in the world at 85% complete, making it very valuable scientifically, also it is still – I think – the largest elephant or mammoth skeleton to be found in the UK,” he continued.

And he added, “The excavation not only collected the bones (done expertly as they are massive but full of cracks and could easily have been damaged) but all the finds were carefully recorded in three dimensions with what was then state-of-the-art equipment. And even the ten tonnes of sediment that were collected were very carefully recorded: we know the precise original location of each 10-litre bucket that was taken from the site (yes, the ten tonnes was collected in hundreds of 10-litre buckets). This was so that when it gets sieved and the contents are sorted, we can see how the remains of small mammals, amphibians, birds and fish etc vary from layer to layer.”

Lifting the West Runton mammoth skull in a specially-designed steel frame in 1995. Photo credit: Martin Warren.

The West Runton Freshwater Bed has been studied for almost 200 years. But this latest collaboration of scientists reveals an ecosystem full of species we recognize today, among them possibly two species of rhino, a bison, deer, voles, ducks, geese, swans, starlings, insects, eels, snakes, frogs, newts, molluscs, and fish. Lots and lots of fish. The team determined that this was a slow-moving river that was “densely vegetated” and surrounded by forests rather than open environment.

A: a drawing of the fossils in-situ. Areas 73 and 74 indicate where small vertebrates were discovered. Area “S” was filled with plant microfossils, beetles and pollen. B: sampling profile. See “Introduction: The West Runton Freshwater Bed and the West Runton Mammoth” for more info. Photo credit: Anthony Stuart.

Prof. Lister emphasized that it was particularly crucial to discover the mammoth “in what was already a very important and well-known deposit – the type deposit of the Cromerian interglacial, stuffed with every other kind of fossil imaginable (plants, insects, molluscs, fish, amphibians, birds, other mammals).  So we took the opportunity not only to excavate the mammoth but to undertake a stratified biotic and environmental study through the deposit. Many tonnes of sediment were collected, sieved, sorted, and parcelled out to specialists, their reports appearing in the 2010 special issue.  So we have an incredibly detailed picture of the mammoth’s environment – more so than for other finds of Mammuthus trongotherii.” 

The reference to 10 tons of sediment was also mentioned earlier by Nigel, but I want to reiterate it now.  The team took an amount of sediment equaling more than the weight of the mammoth in life.  A fantastic treasure trove of information!

“I kept all the sediment removed from the bones, labelled individually,” Nigel wrote. “This should be standard practice. In this instance some people might think that maybe it wasn’t strictly necessary, as 10 tonnes of sediment was collected during the excavation! However, although about half of that 10 tonnes has now been sieved and the contents sorted and identified, the remaining 5 tonnes may not be kept forever, as space in museum stores is at a premium. If it is disposed of, then the relatively small amounts I curated when preparing the bones suddenly becomes more valuable scientifically.”

He explained further, referencing a spectacular 10-meter ichthyosaur discovery found last year, “People do use such material for research: we have been contacted by many people wanting samples of sediment from around the Rutland ichthyosaur so they can analyse it for fish teeth, diatoms, pollen and other microfossils.”

“Hopefully the West Runton Mammoth conservation project set a good precedent and the people at the Heritage Lottery Fund will realise the importance of such work, and that finding and excavating these amazing fossils is just the first phase of work,” Nigel observed. “Cleaning, preparation and conservation is the second, much longer, phase. Phase three is the research, followed by mounting the fossil and putting it on display in a public space (preferably a museum close to where the fossil was found) for all to enjoy forevermore.”




Margaret Hems next to the mammoth pelvis she found. Photo credit: Harold Hems.

Nigel knew both Margaret Hems, who discovered the fossil, and her husband, Harold.  He said of them: “[T]hey were absolutely delightful people. They made my time in Norfolk (13 years!) so much more pleasurable.”

It is thanks to Margaret Hems that we have any knowledge of the West Runton Mammoth and its larger environment at all.

“If people weren’t in the habit of [collecting] fossils” on the West Runton beach, Nigel stated, “then I am sure that within a decade or so the mammoth would have simply become rubble on the beach. A very sad thought.”

References:

  1. The West Runton Freshwater Bed and the West Runton Mammoth; Quaternary International, Edited by Adrian Lister, A.J. Stuart, Volume 228, Issues 1–2, Pages 1-248 (1 December 2010)
  2. Margaret Hems, by Hannah Norman (Margaret Hems’ granddaughter), TrowelBlazers, 5 February 2016
  3. The West Runton Elephant, BBC Radio 4, Jessica Holm, 11 Apr 2006

This blog post is a direct result of the kindness of two people: one of whom thought I’d be interested in this research years ago and shared a wealth of information with me, and another who, upon recently learning of my interest, shared more information with me. A profound *THANK YOU* to you, Nigel Larkin and Adrian Lister! I’m so very grateful for your generosity, your time and your clarifications on the research.

If anyone reading this post is interested in learning more about this mammoth or the environment in which it was found, I highly recommend reading the papers in this issue of Quaternary International. Not every paper in this volume was cited. There is so much more to learn!

Mammuthus trogontherii fossil from Russia, Davide Meloni, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons