Science in a Troubling Political Climate – Dr. Chris Widga – Part 2

New Hampshire doesn’t have a state museum.  I never realized there were such things until someone I interviewed mentioned a mastodon fossil in Albany, which prompted me to travel to the NY State Museum soon after to see it.

Not understanding what a state museum is, it shocked me that there was no admission fee; anyone from anywhere could visit the museum at no cost.  I marveled then—as I marvel still—that such places exist. (To be clear: not all state museums are free.)

The Cohoes Mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, NY; picture taken by the author of this blog.  I learned of this mastodon thanks to Dartmouth professor, Dr. Roger Sloboda, after interviewing him for a piece I was writing about a mammoth & mastodon exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science in 2012.

 

 

Illinois not only has a state museum, that museum is made up of five separate museums with over 13 million artifacts.  And in 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner wanted to close it completely.

During a messy and contentious budget battle, the museum was shuttered for nine months, only to be reopened this past July with a new $5 admission fee.  But by then, most of the staff had gone, forced to take jobs in other places as their future at the museum was decidedly uncertain.

 

Screenshot from this page of the Illinois State Museum website.

 

No one knows this better than Dr. Chris Widga, who had been a vertebrate paleontologist employed at the Illinois State Museum.  He now works at the Center for Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).

“The whole question of Channel Islands and island mammoths probably got me through last winter,” Dr. Widga explained as we spoke by phone.

We were discussing the effect islands had on proboscidean evolution and the exciting recent research done in part by researchers from The Mammoth Site and the National Park Service.

“In Illinois, as the State government was falling apart around my ears, as the State Museum was closed, I basically closed my door and was doing the analysis for the Quaternary International article. In so doing, I was thinking about these pygmy mammoths. As it’s icy outside and subzero for about six weeks at a time, that kept my sanity.” He laughed.  “So the Channel Islands has been my refuge, I guess, even though I’ve never actually been out on one of them.”

The move from Illinois to Tennessee was not just a contrast in physical environments.  It also meant moving from a scientific institution founded in 1855 to one that has been open for just 10 years.  Dr. Widga explained that a mere two weeks prior to his start date at ETSU, the university formed a partnership with a local science center.   The ETSU staff maintains the collections, conducts research, and oversees excavations at the nearby Gray Fossil Site.  The science center staff is responsible for educational activities within the museum and overall maintenance.

“Their [educational] philosophy is very similar to ours,” Dr. Widga said of the science center. “It’s inquiry-based. We want people to come in and learn through asking questions rather than just be spoon-fed facts.”

So much of what Dr. Widga has done involves public outreach.  From videos about the collections at the Illinois State Museum to long-distance learning programs like The Mammoth Expedition, work he did in conjunction with Dr. Katy Smith at Georgia Southern University and with the Milwaukee Public Museum.

When I commented on how much I loved that kind of publicly accessible information, his response was, “Part of that is because I’m in a museum. I’m not buried under coursework and teaching. Outreach is valued. The way you justify your existence in a museum is to connect with the public.  And part of that is figuring out how we can connect with the public in ways where it’s an exponential relationship.”

In other words, not having a one-on-one conversation with a museum visitor, but creating a website about the Ice Age in the Midwest, for example.

Figure from a presentation done by Dr. Chris Widga as part of the National Science Foundation grant received; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

 

Despite everything he’s gone through, there is no question Dr. Widga loves what he does.  It permeates his voice when he speaks of paleontology, and it prompted me to ask if he ever becomes excited at work.  His response was a definitive ‘YES.’

By way of explanation, he quoted his now-retired colleague, Dr. Jeff Saunders, who used to say, “‘Going to work in the morning was like going to Disney Land everyday.’”

Not only did the two scientists literally work across the hall from each other at the Illinois State Museum, they were apparently known to shout out excitedly to the other whenever one read a great article or wanted to share a relevant scientific image.

“Part of the reason I like museums is because you just never know!” Dr. Widga continued. “Some of the new things come from the collections; some of the new things come from new papers. You read them and you’re like, ‘oh, this explains it!’ It was something that you had been working on for a long time and, all of a sudden, somebody else had that last piece of the puzzle that puts the whole thing together.

“At least once a day—even on the worst days—there’s something that comes through and I’m like, ‘oh, this is so cool!’”

Proboscideans at Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History; image courtesy of Chris Widga

 

The seemingly idyllic work environment in Illinois lasted for a decade until 2015. Despite protests, a MoveOn.org petition and public outcry about the museum closing, Dr. Widga and his colleagues were forced to consider other options.  The fate of the museum was out of their hands.

“There was a point as I started looking for jobs last year that I asked myself, you know, do I want to continue in this vein?”

“I’d watched many of [my colleagues] that had taken jobs in Research One institutions [become] totally burned out.  Or they’d kind of gone in weird and funky directions, not because the research was taking them in that direction, but because they were getting pressure from their institution to go in a certain direction or something like that.

“And that was part of the fun of the Illinois State Museum is that I could work on anything. Nobody was saying, ‘You have to work on elephants.’ That was a choice that was mine. Nobody was saying, ‘well, you have to work on dogs.’ That was a choice that was mine. You could chase whatever questions were out there.

“The feedback that I got from the people that interviewed me [was that] they were very interested in what I did.  It was a very different situation than what we were going through at the Illinois State Museum where, essentially, you were being told, ‘what you do is not important.  And none of what you do—your position, your entire existence—is important.’ [The feedback I got while interviewing for other jobs] revived this idea that what we do is important, and it’s exciting.”

I couldn’t help but compare his experience in Illinois to the general anti-science climate in our government today.  It was particularly interesting for me to speak with Dr. Widga about his paper on Pleistocene ecology a day or so after the House Science Committee’s so-called hearing on climate change.  Dr. Widga’s infectious enthusiasm took a very somber turn, as he conceded how difficult things become when “politics starts really driving the boat and reason takes a back seat.”

“That won’t change any of the science,” he added, “[but] it may change how the science is funded. It also won’t change any outreach that we do or the educational activities! In fact, if anything, it’s going to make those seem more important and put more emphasis on those.

“We can talk about the scientific community writ-large, but certainly within the paleontological community, you will find very few working paleontologists, working scientists, who say that education and outreach is not a good thing anymore.

“It used to be that you could just hole-up and do your research and never really interact with the public.  But if anything, this whole process [with the IL governor and the Illinois State Museum] has made us realize that that can’t happen.

“There’s this realization that pre-dates this modern political atmosphere: That you really do need to work with the public and you need to make sure that the point of what you’re doing is out there. Not just in terms of dinosaurs are always cool so therefore that’s why we’re doing it. But we’re also doing it to learn more about how our world works–the nuts-and-bolts of how ecosystems are put together, the nuts-and-bolts of how climate changes impact those ecosystems–that has real-life implications for today and into the future.

“And there’ve been some really loud voices in the last couple of years that have said that over and over and over again. Some of which are people like Jacquelyn Gill! And that is a big shift in science. It’s a big shift in science communications.

“I’m glad that we were moving on that before the current [political] atmosphere because it makes it much more difficult to sideline us as, you know, a bunch of eggheads.”

It didn’t take long for our conversation to take a positive swing upward, as Dr. Widga then described possible future projects involving scientists across the country.

His statement “I’ve always been of the opinion that science is a collaborative effort” couldn’t be more apt.  And I, for one, cannot wait to see what he and his colleagues work on next.

Artwork by Velizar Simeonovski based on scientific research at Mastodon Lake in Aurora, IL; courtesy of Chris Widga

*****

THANK YOU, Dr. Chris Widga, for your generosity of time and spirit in speaking with me about paleontology and the difficulty you’ve gone through.  I loved conversing with you, and I’m eager to read about, watch or see the projects you dive into next!

 

References:

  1. Illinois State Museum reopens to public after nine-month shutdown, John Reynolds, The State Journal-Register, July 2, 2016
  2. Closing decimates Illinois State Museum management, Chris Dettro, The State Journal-Register, December 27, 2015
  3. Much of Illinois State Museum management leaves amid closure, Chicago-Tribune, December 28, 2015
  4. Museums caught in middle of state budget showdown, Steve Johnson, Chicago-Tribune, June 25, 2015
  5. Rainer prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 2015

North American Proboscideans and Dr. Chris Widga – Part 1

“Most zooarchaeologists are interested in the people, and they use the animals as kind of a tool for understanding butchering patterns or food ways or something like that.”

Dr. Chris Widga and I were in the midst of a great conversation about three recent papers he co-authored, paleontology, proboscideans, and the state of science today.

“I was always interested in the animals themselves,” he continued, “so when I got the position as a vertebrate paleontologist at the [Illinois State Museum], all of my friends who’d known me for years said, ‘well, that was a no-brainer for us. You were doing vertebrate paleontology all the time on Holocene bison. You never cared much about the people!’”

That beginning in zooarchaeology and the subsequent immersion in paleontology are what give him a unique perspective of the two sciences.  Or, as he himself explained: “I guess I kind of have this foot in both worlds.”

The two occasionally overlap.  In the paper published this past February in Boreas, “Late Pleistocene proboscidean population dynamics in the North American Midcontinent,” he and his colleagues take a closer look at what might have caused the extinction of mammoths and mastodons in what is now the middle of North America. Possible culprits include climate change, shifts in available vegetation, and predators (including humans).

Of the 627 localities included in this study, only 3 offer any kind of human association.  The authors state that these sites were “re-visited to ensure consistent taphonomic and zooarchaeological data,” and that, despite this, whether or not these specific humans and proboscideans interacted remains unclear.

“That’s a distinction I like to make as a paleontologist and a zooarchaeologist,” Dr. Widga offered. “Just because we have a couple of the sites with humans associated [doesn’t necessarily indicate that] humans actually hunted, killed and butchered those animals.  [Humans] may have scavenged them.  They may just simply be associated in these sites. And very few of those sites have been analyzed to the degree of detail that we really need to start teasing apart those issues.”

What he and co-authors Stacey N. Lengyel, Jeff Saunders, Gregory Hodgins, J. Douglas Walker, and Alan D. Wanamaker try to do, however, is take a deeper look at the late Pleistocene environment in which these proboscideans lived.  It’s exciting research: Rather than simply describing fossils discovered in the various US states and one Canadian province, they are trying to put them into context.  In other words, they are trying to understand the ecology of that time period and how that may have affected the megafauna living within it.

But it’s not an easy task.

“Ecologists can look at modern ecosystems and say, ‘Ok. This is what’s going on, and this is why we think that, and this is how we’re measuring it’ in great detail.  But extrapolating those same processes back into the paleontological record is often really, really difficult even with the best data set.

For example, “[w]e can observe boom-and-bust cycles in deer populations, in caribou populations, in musk ox and things like that. But when you try and translate that into the paleontological record, most of the time it’s really difficult because you simply don’t have the samples and you don’t have the time resolution.

“Even in our case, where we have really good samples and we have really good dates on our samples and we’re creating this chronological structure to kind of fit them in, it’s really difficult to translate those patterns into ecology.

“We can’t date a single mastodon any more precisely than about a hundred-year window.”

The fact that some of the ecological constructs used today in extant populations are controversial makes trying to apply such constructs to extinct animals that much more of a challenge.

“When even the ecologists can’t truly [agree upon] what’s going on, you have to navigate things very, very carefully.”

The amount of work put into this paper (work that has produced previous, subsequent and yet-to-be-published papers) is staggering.  Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, Dr. Widga and Dr. Jeff Saunders—both previously at the Illinois State Museum—were able to visit an astounding number of museum collections in the Midwest and review their proboscidean fossils.

“We’ve [basically] spent the last 5 years in other people’s collections,” he explained. “It was fun because we visited a lot of collections that people don’t usually go to. About half of the data set comes from repositories that have fewer than five mammoths and mastodons.”

 

 

An inside look at the extensive fossil collection at the Indiana State Museum collection–one of the many collections visited by Dr. Widga.  In our conversation, he said, “The Indiana State Museum is a big dot on the map in terms of mammoths and mastodons, in part because of [paleobiologist Ron Richards’] work!”   This image was taken in 2005, picturing then Collections Manager Michele Gretna (currently Director of Archaeology); image courtesy Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Another inside look at the Indiana State Museum collection; Preparator Elizabeth Scott after the reconstruction of the Kolarik locality mastodon tusks, 2014; image courtesy Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

 

 

Their work involved the review of over 1600 fossils that currently reside in collections in Ontario, Canada, as well as in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“We doubled the number of known published sites for mammoths and mastodons in the Midwest.”

Information that they are willing to share with other scientists, as evidenced by the number of papers they continue to co-author.  Following the Boreas paper, Dr. Widga was part of another two papers published in March in Quaternary International and then in Scientific Reports.

Mammoth teeth take a leading role in the paper, “Reconciling phylogenetic and morphological trends in North American Mammuthus,” published in Quaternary International and co-written with Jeff Saunders and Jacob Enk.

“We’re starting to put out some of these ideas that actually put data onto these [traditional] species boxes that we like to put specimens into.  So that was one of the first steps into thinking about these things: more as morphologically variable populations rather than just trying to assign them to a particular species.

“A lot of times these studies kind of happen in isolation.  So the people that think about morphology, they’ll publish on the morphology and then post-hoc, they’ll say, ‘oh but this doesn’t agree with the genetics at all.’ Or the geneticists will publish on the genetics, but they don’t integrate any morphology.  So our point was to try and integrate both of them and see what they say. Can you use the genetics to kind of structure your interpretations of what the morphology means?”

The authors studied “M3s”—the permanent upper 3rd molar—of both female and male mammoths of various ages from museum collections and from previously published work.

Per Dr. Widga, this is the upper 3rd mammoth molar from Clear Lake Sand and Gravel Pit, Sangamon County, IL. One of his favorites from the ISM collection. It dates to the Last Glacial Maximum and had preserved DNA so is included in the Enk dataset; image and caption courtesy Chris Widga.

 

“Jeff [Saunders] and I would say, ‘this genetic information actually fits perfectly with our morphological information which suggests that there’s a lot of population overlap in between these normally well-defined populations.’ So in between Columbian mammoths in the Great Plains and woolly mammoths from the Great Lakes you have Iowa mammoths that show characteristics of both. And also they show characteristics of both in the same animal!

“That was kind of the impetus for the [Quaternary International paper]: to get that out there, show that you do get a lot of overlap in the morphology. It’s not just clean boxes of Columbian mammoths and woolly mammoths. And even pygmy mammoths overlap with Western Columbian mammoths! So that was kind of the point of the paper: to get the conversation going and make a first pass–a first attempt–to reconcile the two data sets.”

Following soon after the paper in Quaternary International, he was part of a remarkable group of proboscidean and genetic scientists whose paper The evolutionary and phylogeographic history of woolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic analysis analyzed 143 woolly mammoth mitochondrial genomes.

As Dr. Widga said with characteristic enthusiasm about his work in paleontology, “It’s always fun! There’s always a mountain to climb and a vista to see!”

*****

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Chris Widga, who was remarkably generous with his time, with images to use and with answering my many, many questions (both for this blog and for my own proboscidean curiosity).  Speaking with him was delightful; he is an incredible ambassador for science in general!

Another sincere THANK YOU to Ron Richards for providing the great images of the Indiana State Museum collection. 

References:

  1. Widga, C., Lengyel, S. N., Saunders, J., Hodgins, G., Walker, J. D. & Wanamaker, A. D.: Late Pleistocene proboscidean population dynamics in the North American Midcontinent. Boreas. 10.1111/bor.12235. ISSN 0300- 9483.
  2. Widga, C., et al., Reconciling phylogenetic and morphological trends in North American Mammuthus, Quaternary International (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.01.034
  3. Chang, D. et al. The evolutionary and phylogeographic history of woolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic analysis. Sci. Rep. 7, 44585; doi: 10.1038/srep44585 (2017).

Mastodon fossil at the Illinois State Museum; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

Meet Dr. Katy Smith – Mastodon Detective

If you imagine the Great Lakes region over 10,000 years ago, you might see large, hairy beasts with relatively straight tusks grazing around boggy areas or moving within dense forests.  Their fur and overall appearance might cause you to confuse them with woolly mammoths, but these are the mammoths’ shorter, stockier cousins.  And if any of them would let you get close enough to inspect their mouths, you’d see in an instant that their teeth are completely different than those of mammoths.

 

[image of contemporary boggy area in Alaska, courtesy Getty Images]

 

Whereas mammoths are believed to have eaten grasses and even flowers, mastodons needed teeth suited to the mastication of hardier stuff: shrubs, parts of trees, perhaps pinecones?   Mastodon teeth, with the bumps and ridges one might associate with carnivores, are easily recognizable as ‘teeth.’  Mammoths, in contrast, needed to grind food, producing teeth with spherical lengths of ridges across each tooth.

ISM - Mastodon tooth

 

[image courtesy of Ron Richards, Indiana State Museum, for this post: Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1.  Can you tell which tooth belongs to which species?]

 

ISM - Mammoth tooth

 

[image courtesy of Ron Richards, Indiana State Museum, for this post: Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1.]

And while woolly mammoths pervade popular culture and interest, there are some, like Dr. Katy Smith, Associate Professor of Geology at Georgia Southern University and Curator of the Georgia Southern Museum, who prefer their lesser-known cousins and have made fascinating contributions to our understanding of them.

Mastodon discoveries usually produce the fossils of a single animal, and rarely a complete skeleton. Rarer still, finding skeletal remains of multiple mastodons at the same site.

Such a unique discovery occurred in 2005, when more than 300 fossils were found in Hebron, Indiana.  Now known as the “Bothwell site,” it was originally going to be the location of the landowner’s pond.  Instead, Indiana State Museum paleobiologist Ron Richards and his crew uncovered bones that included numerous mastodons (Mammut americanum), giant beaver (Castoroides) and hoofed animals with even-toes (artiodactyls).

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

 

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

[images of the Bothwell site dig, courtesy of Ron Richards, Indiana State Museum, for this post: Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 2.]

 

Four years later, the Bothwell site became the focus of Katy Smith, her dissertation, and two subsequent papers she co-wrote with Dr. Daniel Fisher at the University of Michigan.

But let’s take a moment to consider what paleontologists uncover. However rudimentary this may seem, it is important to note that bones are generally not discovered in neat order, intact and with each skeletal component attached where it would have been in the life of the animal.

Consider, too, that not all bones survive.  And those that do are often broken or in terrible condition.

So even at a site such as Bothwell, which produced lots of fossils, a paleontologist’s job is no less challenging.  The pieces of information are incomplete, mere clues to the animals that died there.

The questions, however, are profuse.

Why were so many animals found in that one spot?

If, as it is currently debated, mastodons shared behavioral traits with modern-day elephants, was this a family unit?

If so, was this group—like elephants–comprised largely of female and juvenile mastodons?

And why were other unrelated animals discovered among them?

Did a sudden disaster kill them all?  Were humans involved?

 

 

Sexual dimorphism is another way of referring to the traits that make an animal either female or male.  Some of us would assume, since mastodon pelvic bones were not among the Bothwell fossil assemblage, that the sex of these animals would remain unknown.

There were 13 mastodon tusks, only four of which were complete. And this, remarkably, is what prompted Katy Smith’s research.

“I wanted to know if I just had tusks, what can I do to figure out if I’m looking at a male or a female,” she explained by phone.

Katy Smith - measuring an African elephant tusk

 

[image of Dr. Katy Smith measuring an African elephant tusk in (what this author believes must be one of the greatest places on earth) the basement and fossil collection of the University of Michigan; courtesy of Dr. Katy Smith]

 

“Other people have looked at [sexual dimorphism], but I wanted to look at it specifically with the Bothwell mastodons, because they were inferred to be female, and female mastodons are less common in the fossil record than males.

“When I presented preliminary results from my research in a paleontology class, the professor said, ‘Why don’t you try multivariate analysis?’ And it just kind of spiraled from there.”

Multivariate analysis,’ as the name implies, means using more than one type of measurement or observation towards a hypothesis.  In other words, rather than simply using size as a determination of sexual dimorphism, applying numerous methods and statistics that support or disprove it.

Already, the amount of information scientists have pulled from tusks alone is fascinating.

Tusks are teeth.  They are described, in Dr. Smith’s dissertation as “hypertrophic incisors.” And, unlike human teeth, they continue to grow the entire life of the animal. So where we can simply look at a human tooth and know immediately whether it is from an adult or a child, the same cannot be done with tusks.

What their hardy structure records includes the age of the animal, growth in winter or summer months each year, their overall diet, and periods of nutritional stress.  (As described in an earlier post, Proboscidean molars can even provide details regarding where they roamed during life.)

But much of this information can only be gleaned from well-preserved, intact tusks, as well as from cutting into and examining their chemical composition.

“If you don’t know what the sex of the animal is before you look at tusk microstructure,” she said, “it can be hard to interpret what you’re looking at.”

Part of what Dr. Smith hoped to discover were similarities in the tusks where sex and age had already been determined.  If certain structural elements were the same across female mastodon tusks, such that they tended to differ from male mastodon tusks, this might help determine sexual dimorphism in future tusk discoveries.

She also hoped to discover any similarities between the tusks of extant elephants and mastodons.

Katy Smith -longitudinally bisected tusk

 

[image of longitudinally bisected tusk, courtesy of Dr. Katy Smith] 

 

Thus, she studied and measured tusks of both species from numerous museum collections. (Asian elephant tusks were not used, as female elephants of this species tend to have either tiny tusks or no tusks at all.)  She rather amusingly refers to the approximate amount of tusks involved as “5,000 pounds of tusk.”

Her dissertation and the two papers describe the type of analysis performed in detail.  Among them were canonical variates analysis (CVA) and discriminant function analysis (DFA).

“Fortunately, we didn’t have to cut into the tusks to do those measurements. You just insert a stiff wire into the pulp cavity.”

“We think about tusks sometimes as stacks of sugar cones, because they actually grow in a kind of [layered] cone structure. So you think about one sugar cone, and then you put another one inside that one and then another one inside that one and so on and so forth. And the last sugar cone is empty. There’s nothing in it. That represents the pulp cavity.”

“[Analyzing the] pulp cavity is probably one of the best single measurements that you can use to distinguish between male and females. [I]n females, that pulp cavity will terminate before the gum line, and in males, it will terminate after the gum line, closer to the tip.

“This is something that we saw in almost every mastodon. So it was kind of cool.”

 

Katy Smith - female mastodon

 

[image of female mastodon skull and tusks, courtesy of Dr. Katy Smith]

 

“If we could have cut every tusk, I would have,” she admitted, and laughed. “But it was a matter of collecting these measurements at different museums. And so I would just go there and collect all of them, and that was how we’d get the pulp cavity depth.”

“I’ve always been interested in paleontology,” she said when I asked her how she got started.

“I’m one of those kids who just never grew out of it. My parents used to take me to the museum all the time, and I used to spend hours and hours staring at the dinosaur dioramas there, just loving it.  I told my kindergarten teacher I wanted to be a paleontologist. I never changed! My 5-year-old self grew up and became a paleontologist.”

But her interests moved away from dinosaurs when she realized that their fossil record in Wisconsin, her home state, was rare to nonexistent.

After all, she said, “I started just wanting to explore what was underneath my feet.”

It wasn’t until grad school at Michigan State, where she met the late Dr. Alan Holman, that she realized her passion for mastodons.  His own interest in the species was infectious, and it was through him that she learned of the numerous mastodon (Mammut americanum) fossil discoveries in the area.

“Wow!” she said, recalling her initial reaction. “There are over 300 mastodons in Michigan. This is exciting!”

Katy Smith - male mastodon

[image of male mastodon skull and tusks, courtesy of Dr. Katy Smith]

Not surprisingly, she did her PhD work at the University of Michigan, home to Proboscidean expert Dr. Daniel Fisher, who was her advisor.

“I wanted to work with him,” she explained, “because I wanted to continue working on mastodons, and he had a couple of ideas for projects. One of them included this assemblage of mastodons from Indiana, which were—supposedly—all female.”

What she discovered regarding the Bothwell site is both thought-provoking and fascinating:

  • 8 tusks were determined to be female; the other 5 are unknown
  • the ages of the mastodons range between 19 and 31 years old
  • there is evidence that at least one juvenile might have been among them (a “juvenile tooth crown” was found)
  • given that two mastodons died in winter, and another two died either in late summer or early autumn, this indicates that the collective deaths of these animals didn’t happen at the same time (hence, not a single event)
  • none of the mastodons appeared to be under nutritional stress when they died
  • members of a family unit would be expected to have the same “isotope profiles”–chemical signatures in their teeth–but these do not

Based on the evidence provided, Dr. Smith wonders whether these animals were part of a meat cache for humans (members of the Clovis culture) that co-existed at that time.

But perhaps the single most remarkable result of her research is helping other paleontologists–who often have nothing more than a single tusk–determine the sex of that animal using her different types of analysis.

Prior to her dissertation, only one female mastodon tusk had been analyzed for growth rate.  To date, I am unaware of any other publication (paper or book) that helps detail the sexual dimorphism in mastodons by tusks alone.

When I remarked upon this, I asked her if others had cited her work.  Her response, after stating that others had, was equally fascinating to me.

“It’s always the hope as a scientist that you’re contributing in some way,” she said, “and you know that you’re contributing if somebody else is using what you’ve done.”

 

An enormous and sincere THANK YOU to Dr. Katy Smith for her generous and fascinating answers to my many questions, her gracious help when I had trouble understanding certain points, and for being so much fun with whom to connect! I cannot express how much I wish I could attend her classes, nor how fascinating I found her dissertation. I am profoundly grateful that she shared it with me!

A sincere thank you to my Dad, as well, for helping me understand tooth components (i.e.: dentin, cementum)!

**A quick reminder that I am neither a scientist nor a paleontologist, so any errors in this post are my own.

Bothwell Mastodont Dig, courtesy of Indiana State Museum; many thanks to Bruce Williams and Leslie Lorance!

—————

References:

 

Other references:

 

Cohoes mastodon size comparison

[image of sign in the NY State Museum illustrating the size difference between an extant elephant, a woolly mammoth and the Cohoes mastodon; picture taken by the author]

From the Depths of an Indiana Cave: A Fossil Treasure Trove

Around perhaps 25,000 years ago in Southern Indiana, an injured Dire Wolf made its way into a cave and never came back out. With three good legs and one that had been out of socket for a year or so, the wolf crawled through the smaller spaces and eventually—whether through an accidental fall or otherwise—landed at the bottom of a deep pit. It was trapped.

Ron Richards, Senior Research Curator of Paleobiology at the Indiana State Museum, and his crew discovered its skeleton after digging in that particular room for 3 or 4 seasons.

Ron took that set of bones to pathologists for more information. However long that injury was sustained, and it was not a short amount of time, that wolf was a survivor. They determined the one leg probably didn’t touch the ground, but that it could probably still run using the other three.

“What normally is a circular ball-joint on his thighbone was flattened on one whole side,” Ron explained in a phone interview.

“I think that probably affected his ability to back out. Maybe he smelled some rotting carcass smell or something, got too near and couldn’t back out, and probably went over the top [of the pit.]”

A reconstruction of that event, complete with an actual cast of that specific room in the cave, can be seen at the Indiana State Museum today.

What may not be apparent was the work involved in creating that cast.

The word “cave” might invoke images of enormous open spaces underground. This is not at all that kind of cave. Not at the initial opening, nor at any space within as one moves deeper inside.

“Years ago, you had to go into a belly-crawl,” Ron said of the entrance, “but now we’ve moved through it so much, we can do a hands-and-knees crawl.”

They built a platform to work above water pooling at the bottom of the pit, and—in order to keep the walls dry for rubber molds—they used blowtorches. Ron, cave dig crewmembers and people from RCI (Research Casting International) worked together on the beginning stages of the room’s cast. The finished product was done at RCI headquarters in Ontario.

RCI - Dire wolf replica

[Image of the cave cast and wolf replica, http://www.rescast.com, by Research Casting International for the Indiana State Museum]

Nothing done in that cave is an easy process.

When Ron first began digging in that cave, he said, “I thought it would take 9 people 9 days, and we could finish the project.”

That was in 1987. The dig was prompted by the discovery of a single peccary bone.

Ever since, for approximately two weeks each year, Ron and his crew have returned to dig.

“[It was] the first big cave dig we had done,” he continued, describing that first year. “We’d done a couple of mastodon digs at the time, but we really had no money for the budget. There was nothing there. We had no trained staff. We had almost no equipment.”

“I remember pulling this together, pulling different people from different sections of the museum.”

And when it came to potential funding for this excavation, Ron recalled that he was asked, ‘Can’t you do this another time?’

“I didn’t know what to say,” he admitted, “so I didn’t say anything. The next day, we got the gear loaded, and we headed down for the cave. We just did not look back!”

“As it worked out, we dug, we found more bone: parts of little peccaries, parts of big peccaries, and other animals that no longer occur in the region.”

Peccaries are relatives of modern pigs, but instead of upper canine teeth that curve up—as in modern hogs—their teeth “drive straight down like daggers,” as Ron explained. Today, modern peccaries live within the Southwest United States, as well as in Central and South America. But during the Ice Age, peccaries were common in Indiana and Eastern U.S.

Peccary Fig 02  iceage13a upgraded

[Pleistocene peccary by Karen Yoler, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.  Per Ron Richards: “This image is artist Karen Yoler’s  concept of what the peccary looked like.  We did drop off the larger dew claws on the front legs and added a little more canine tooth size and gave it a more perpendicular orientation.”]

 

[Angry javelina–or collared peccary–close up. Javelina go by many names such as wild pig,boar,etc.; image and caption from Getty Images.]

Working deep in the cave initially, the crew created a system that they continue to use, with some improvements, to this day: some people dig in the cave and place the soil into buckets; other people haul the buckets out of the cave and bring them down to a stream; still others screen the soil for fossils.

All of the data is recorded; all of the soil is screened.

“Above you are big spiders—lots of cave spiders and cave crickets. They don’t bother you, but some people get the heebie-jeebies, you know? I mean, you look up, and there [are these] massive things moving around,” he said and chuckled.

In recent years, they’ve developed what Ron refers to as “tramways,” 60-70 feet of ramps created by parallel boards with cross slats. Tramways—some with rollers—help bring the buckets out of the entrance to the cave and down the hillside.

ISM - Cave with tramway

 

[Digging…with the tramway in position for hauling buckets of sediment out, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

To help carry 15-20 buckets at a time down to the spring to be screened, they employ an ATV with a tractor.

“[From all of the] tons of soil that gets screened,” Ron stated, “[there remains some] soil that’s left with small bones. We bag that out, bring it back to the museum, and then they rescreen it and clean it. And then–spoonful by spoonful–they go under the binocular microscope, and they pick out all the small bones and teeth.”

His crew is a dedicated group: leaving their hotel rooms at 8am and working throughout the day—with a short break for lunch–until 5pm (or later if the weather holds). Ideally, there are nine crewmembers per season, but they have done it with less people. Digging has sometimes required breaking rock, so among the many tools used are sledgehammers and chisels.

ISM - Cave digging

 

[Digging for peccary bones, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

 

Over the years, the cave rooms have gained descriptive names: the Peccary Room, for example, the X Room, and the Bat Room.

The “Microfauna Room” was named after the large amount of small bones they found when they began digging through the top layers of soil and rock. This is where the aforementioned Dire Wolf was discovered.

“Near the bottom of that room, down at the 25,000-yr level,” Ron explained, “we began to get fairly complete skeletons of things like Dire Wolf, Black Bear, an otter, a snowshoe hare, a lot of small shrews and mice.”

“We really believe that those animals fell in this pit. They dropped, and they went down about 15-20 feet. I think most of the time it was probably full of water.

“It’s just a lonely place to be. Whether they could stand at the bottom, I don’t know. But there’s no way out.

“There [was] enough mud washing in from the ceiling of that room that they were buried under real fine sediments. And that preserved them very well.”

Some of the fossils discovered have been both remarkable and rare. A tapir tooth—only the second to be found in the entire state of Indiana—was found in the cave. Several beautiful armadillo (Dasypus bellus) plates [osteoderms] have been discovered have been discovered (that is the actual name; ‘beautiful’ is not necessarily a description). Ron painted a picture of this by saying, “When one animal dies, there’s about 3,000 plates that disintegrate and go everywhere, like little dominoes.”

“Two years ago,” he said, describing the ‘Twilight Room’, “we started finding some articulated peccary skeletons.”

“Deep in the cave we didn’t find a lot of that. The bones would be disturbed, and you could just see sort of a jumbled mass that had been moved by water, by gravity, [or] by other animals.”

“In this room, we found things that were articulated, feet in place, all of the little toes in place. Really unusual.”

The earliest fossils found were parts of a giant land tortoise, a species that cannot live in cold climates. Finding this indicated that the area, at that time, did not freeze.

Also found were fossils of a pine marten, a species that, conversely, lives in Northern climates today.

And as for peccaries, Ron estimates that they have found the bones of approximately 650 individuals. They determined this number by by counting the total number of large, pointed canine teeth and dividing by four.

ISM - flat-headed peccary

[Bones & skull of the flat-headed peccary, image courtesy of Ron Richards, the Indiana State Museum.]

“So the question is then: did they live here? Or did they all have a misfortune and die here? It’s a little of both, but it’s mainly that they probably inhabited this cave and rock shelter for most of that time period.”

Ron mentioned that a number of the fossil discoveries in the cave are new to him.

So how does one identify unfamiliar fossils?

“We have a general reference collection of modern bones,” he replied, “and there is a big collection at Indiana University, Bloomington that I had become very familiar with in the 1970’s and 1980’s.”

He went on to explain that he referenced available literature and visited other museum collections.

“I had written correspondence,” he continued, “and the mailing of specimens with several experts in the eastern United States. My foremost ‘mentors’ were Dr. Russell Graham (then The Illinois State Museum), and the late Dr. J. Alan Holman (The Museum, Michigan State University), but I also had open correspondence with the late John E. Guilday (Carnegie Museum of Natural History), the late Dr. Paul W. Parmalee (The McClung Museum, University of Tennessee), Dr. Holmes Semken (University of Iowa) and the late Wm. R. Adams (Zooarchaeology Laboratory, Indiana University).”

“Everything [is] dug in square units,” he said. “We have thousands of these units. We can show the distribution and abundance of anything that pretty much died in that cave for thousands of years.”

And the work is hardly done. Ron estimates that the digging portion may be completed within the next 5 seasons (5 years), but the analysis of the immense amount of fossils has yet to begin.

“We’ve got probably 30 radiocarbon dates from the cave. Every year, we get one or two more.”

Ron explained that the cave has, so far, produced “probably 7,000 small plastic boxes of small bones, and 2,000-3000 larger containers of larger bones.”

“It’s my job to identify those. But, you understand,” he said, laughing, “life is short. I could spend all my time, day and night, just working with that alone. It’s an immense project.”

————–

Many, many thanks to Ron Richards, whose generosity astounds me.  I am profoundly grateful for his time, his patience with my “volley of questions” and his fascinating descriptions.  It is always a pleasure and an honor connecting with him!

A sincere thank you to Bruce Williams for prompting this post!

**The name and location of this cave were intentionally left out for security reasons.

[Image of the Indiana State Museum, Getty Images]

These Two Museums Need Your Help: Pt. 2 Illinois State Museum

Actually, the title to this post is a misnomer: there is one main branch of the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, but there are 4 other state museums in different locations that also fall under the “Illinois State Museum.”

And all five of them are under the threat of closure on July 1st.

On June 2nd, the office of Governor Bruce Rauner announced what programs he intended to cut in an attempt to save $400 million in the Illinois state budget.

As these museums fall under the responsibility of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, the Governor’s press release stated that the [IDNR] “will begin the process to suspend operations and close the five state museums to visitors. The state will continue to maintain and secure the museums to protect the artifacts and exhibits.

Gov Rauner shuts down museums

 

Screenshot of the Governor’s press release, highlighting the museum closure.

You can read about the many other program cuts and their potential impact here in this article in the Chicago Tribune. (http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rauner-madigan-budget-cuts-met-0603-20150602-story.html)

 

The idea of shutting down one museum—let alone five—seems incomprehensible. These museums collectively contain millions of artifacts.

Chris Young, a spokesperson for the IDNR, wrote in an email that the number of visitors to all museums last year was 386,750 people.  The specific number of people for each museum in 2014 is as follows:

  • Illinois State Museum main facility in Springfield plus Research and Collections Center:  199,304
  • Dickson Mounds:  50,297
  • Chicago Gallery:  64,300
  • Illinois Artisans Shop Chicago:  39,896
  • Lockport Gallery:  14,253
  • Southern Illinois Art Gallery:  18,700

These numbers do not take into account the online resources provided by the museums nor the collaboration between researchers in other states or countries.

Illinois State Museum websitehttp://www.museum.state.il.us/ismsites/main/

Illinois State Museum’s Ice Age website: http://iceage.museum.state.il.us/

iceage.museum.state.il.us

Screenshot of the Ice Age website released this year by the IL State Museum.

 

Enter Samantha Reif.  According to an article on NPR Illinois, she is both a museum volunteer and a geology teacher, and she created the MoveOn.org petition asking Gov. Rauner not to shut down the museums.  At the time of this post, there are 4,514 signatures.

But if the threat of shuttering them becomes real, how does one actually go about closing museums?

“The museum will return art objects owned by other entities that are currently on display,” Chris Young of the IDNR responded. “Consigned Illinois Artisan works also will be returned, as well as scientific collections from other museums and universities that have been borrowed for research purposes.”

“The museum’s staff will also be calling back artifacts and specimens that are on loan to other entities for research and exhibition,” he continued. “At this time, there is no definitive list of objects or collections to be returned.”

In addition, he wrote that the “museum currently has three active research grants from the National Science Foundation, and is a partner on a NSF education grant. [The] museum administration is working on a strategy for completion of the current grants.”

He noted that there are 68 people employed throughout these museums, but that lay-off notices have not yet been sent.

“Closure will come after the museum’s professional staff has adequate time to ensure that collections are properly accounted for and stored. No specific date has been set for closure as details are still being worked out.”

——————-

If you are Facebook, you can stay informed here:  https://www.facebook.com/pages/Save-the-Illinois-State-Museum/917517601639564

You can sign this petition as well: Governor Rauner: Don’t Close the Illinois State Museum – MoveOn.org
http://petitions.moveon.org/sign/governor-rauner-dont.fb48

 

ISM Hot Science: The Importance of Museum Collections, Dr. Chris Widga at the IL State Museum on YouTube

 

Thank you to Chris Young at the IL Department of Natural Resources for his help and quick responses to my questions!

An enormous THANK YOU to Samantha Reif for creating the MoveOn.org petition!! 

Thank you to the American Alliance of Museums, from whom I initially heard about this through their tweet (https://twitter.com/AAMers/status/608034565085642752)!

This particular writer has gained invaluable information and help in the past from one of the museum’s paleontologists, Dr. Chris Widga, and from the informative website recently released about the Ice Age (http://iceage.museum.state.il.us/).

Tweet I love museums

(#ILoveMuseums originates from http://ilovemuseums.com, a campaign in the UK by the National Museum Directors’ Council.)

—————

References:

  1. Rauner starts budget cuts to force Dems to negotiate on his agenda, by Rick Pearson, Monique Garcia and Alejandra Cancino http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/politics/ct-rauner-madigan-budget-cuts-met-0603-20150602-story.html
  2. Rauner prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, by Becky Schlikerman: http://chicago.suntimes.com/news/7/71/656741/rauner-orders-cuts 
  3. Administration Initiates Management Steps to Prepare for Madigan-Cullerton Budget, Governor Rauner’s Office Press Release: http://www3.illinois.gov/PressReleases/ShowPressRelease.cfm?SubjectID=3&RecNum=13115
  4. Who won’t get paid if the Illinois budget stalemate drags on, by Thomas A. Corfman: http://www.chicagobusiness.com/article/20150610/NEWS02/150619982/who-wont-get-paid-if-the-illinois-budget-stalemate-drags-on
  5. Illinois State Museum closing would be devastating, advocate says, by Bernard Schoenburg: http://www.sj-r.com/article/20150610/NEWS/150619927
  6. Will The Illinois State Museum Go The Way Of The Mastodon? by Amanda Vinicky, NPR Illinois: http://wuis.org/post/will-illinois-state-museum-go-way-mastodon

 

NH State Fossil? – Part 4: Legislators to Students: “NO.”

“I don’t mean this in any unkind way, but not all bills pass, and that’s part of the lesson associated here.”

Representative John Sytek was discussing the bill to make a mastodon the NH State Fossil (H.B. 113).

“I’ve had my own bills not pass,” he continued. “And, well, that’s life!”

He and 19 other members of the NH House of Representatives were part of the committee responsible for hearing testimony in support of the bill. These representatives would then offer their recommendation to the rest of the 400 members. The full House would then vote on whether to pass the bill.

StateHouselookingup

[image of the NH State House, Concord, NH, taken by the author]

 

In other words, at a time when the House was voting on hundreds of other bills, the recommendation of that specific committee was crucial to this particular bill.

Of the 20 committee members, only four were present for the testimony.

A small group of 4th graders, Thom Smith and two local paleontologists—Dr. Will Clyde, UNH, and Dr. Gary Johnson, Dartmouth—presented their arguments in support of a state fossil late that afternoon on February 3rd.

The recommendation of the committee, voted 11-4 against the bill, was “inexpedient to legislate.”

“Remember, we were listening to a bill having to do with a symbol for the state. An icon,” Rep. Sytek explained by phone.

“This wasn’t a bill about the budget. This wasn’t eminent domain. This wasn’t licensing of doctors.

“All I’m saying is this bill, in and of itself, was interesting, and we’ve respected the efforts that the kids made, but this isn’t amending the constitution.

“So people who had other obligations want to meet their other obligations. And like every legislator, or everyone in life, you’ve got to balance one thing against another.”

StateHouseentrance

[image of NH State House front stairs and entrance, taken by the author]

 

Representative Greg Smith, one of the committee members not present for the testimony, answered questions later by phone about the bill and the legislative process.

“Basically,” he said, “we’ve got [hundreds of] bills. In a short couple of months, meeting one or two days a week, we’ve got to get through all those bills. And we’re basically volunteers.”

“I think timing-wise, the timing didn’t work out. I think this was intended to be one of the first bills that we saw, and, if you recall, we had such a snowy winter that a lot of the testimony [was] delayed.

“I wonder if things had been different, if this had been one of the very first bills we heard, the House might be more receptive to passing a bill early on like this.

“If we’re only sitting around for 2 hours and then we’re going home, it’s a lot different. Now,” he said, in reference to the number of bills in the House, “you’re in the traffic jam.”

Inclement weather this winter (a season, I might add, that even now, in April, is not yet over) prevented hearings from occurring as scheduled. Hearings were rescheduled to be heard on one long, full day versus over several days or weeks. Time was indeed a factor.

StateHousegallery-best

 

[Here is where bills are either passed or not passed. Image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]

 

And it’s easy, I think, to scoff at something such as a proposal for a state symbol or dismiss it as inconsequential in relation to issues like the budget.

But isn’t there substantial value in an engaged group of citizens, especially at such a young age? Isn’t this something we want to encourage, in a country where most adults are cynical of and many are ignorant of the political process?

And isn’t there great value to furthering educational and scientific resources, at a time when the country is concerned about both?

This is not to say that I think legislation should be passed simply because a group of young citizens are engaged. And I am also not suggesting that all educational or scientific bills be passed on the premise that they are related to education or science. But it did make me wonder why—beyond time and the subjective determination of importance—so many voted against it.

This is particularly puzzling when Rep. Sytek made a point to explain that the testimony given by the 4th graders was superlative.

“I want to commend [Thom Smith] for the work that he did in instructing and teaching these young citizens how our process works.

“Whether anything came of it or not, it’s virtually a dress rehearsal for their own time in the legislature. Because I think some of them will be there! The kids were remarkable! The passage or non-passage of the bill had nothing to do with the presentation.

“I made a point of telling the rest of the committee that this was one of the best presentations I’d seen,” he explained. “Now, I’m not talking about the Department of Health and Human Services necessarily; I’m talking about when interesting constituencies come: high school kids, maybe grammar school kids, a local organization trying to push something for their town comes in.

“This was really dynamite. I appreciated the effort [they made.]”

StateHousemembersonly

[image inside the NH State House, taken by the author]

 

So what were the reasons?

Would creating a state fossil require funding from the state? Would it involve more work for the legislature? Was the research, reasoning or quality of the testimony lacking? Did the legislators think a different fossil would make a better symbol?

What, outside of personal feelings regarding the symbol, would prompt a representative to vote against it?

Rep. Greg Smith was frank.

“I think it’s a bit subjective. You might get different answers from different people.”

“[T]here seems to be an effort by some fourth grade classes, as part of Civics [class], to try and submit bills for different things. [This] fossil bill is a good example.

“I think these are very worthy lessons. It’s great that the fourth graders are involved. But folks also need to understand that when we vote ‘yes’ on something like this, we’re telling the rest of the House, ‘hey, you guys should take the time and go vote on it and send it to the Senate’ because it’s that valuable.

“I think that’s where a lot of us have a concern: that the time we spend on things like the state raptor or the state fossil takes time away from other subjects that we don’t have as much time to research and debate. [This is] my opinion, but I think I speak for a number of others.

“I didn’t have any objection, you know, mastodon vs. mammoth,” he said in response to whether he disagreed with the choice of fossil proposed. “It was really more around that I didn’t feel that the state needs a state fossil.”

“We had a bill come to committee on a state poem,” he continued. “I was out of town that day, but I would have voted against it. I actually lead the charge against an effort to make Feb. 6 Ronald Reagan Day in NH, because Ronald Reagan never lived here, never grew up here. I’m a Republican, and I still thought that it wasn’t appropriate.

Rep. Sytek offered similar reasoning.

“It is true that it could easily be passed in the sense that it didn’t cost the state any money,” he said. “The question, I think, for some people is the appropriateness of talking about something like this when we’re faced with an enormous budget shortfall.

“It looks inappropriate to be talking about things that are of no fundamental significance to the Republic at a time when [we’re working on] the whole tax structure, spending on worthwhile social projects [such as] mental health issues [or] the condition of our roads and bridges. We can talk about everything. We’ll stay there as long as it takes to get the job done. But it doesn’t seem right to be talking about this.”

 

 

[image from Getty Images illustrating some of NH’s State Symbols]

Rep. Greg Smith highlighted the scarcity of fossils in the state as a reason not to have a state fossil.

“[I]f we’re going to do something to make the State of NH Whatever,” he said, “there needs to be a strong and unique connection to NH.

“[L]et’s say, we found the biggest Tyrannosaurus rex fossil in the world and we found it in NH, well, that would be kind of interesting and unique.

“If we found more mammoths or mastodons in NH, [if] we found 100 mastodons, and it was world-famous, well, that would be kind of compelling. Something that makes it a connection to NH, not just a fossil for the sake of having a fossil.”

New Hampshire’s geology, however, makes it exceedingly difficult to find the type of fossils he described. As mentioned in the previous post, the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils as well as that of other states. Does that mean that the state should not celebrate the remarkable fossils it has?

“I feel bad, in a way, for the kids because I know they put a lot of time into it, but I would also say that they’re operating in an adult environment,” Rep. Smith stated. “And I saw a lot of really good bills that representatives put a lot of time into that would have, I believe, positively affected the citizens of NH, but they were voted down or they were killed off by special interests. So, I don’t want [the] fourth graders to be discouraged, but again, they’re being treated as adults. We’re not coddling them just because they’re fourth graders.”

“That may sound mean-spirited. It’s not meant to be, but it’s part of reality.”

The bill, not surprisingly, did not pass the NH House. And it cannot be introduced again for another two years.

“[T]hings don’t necessarily pass the first time around,” Rep. Smith said. “If it’s voted down, you can’t introduce the same bill in the same session. [I]n two years, you’re going to have 20-25% of the House turnover. So maybe they come back in two years and try again.”

“And,” he advised, “if you can get a more senior person or maybe a State Senator to weigh in, that carries weight. And then it becomes more of a personal favor. But you know, the committees, we pay attention to that sort of thing, too.”

Below are emails sent by some members of the committee to Thom Smith, published with permission by those who sent them.

—————

Dear Mr. Smith,

Thank you for writing. In short, I voted against this bill because I believe we have too many state “this or that”, too many special days, and too many special people days that we recognize already. Our committee also killed a day in recognition of Ronald Reagan recently as well as the adoption of a state poem, and last year the House tabled a bill creating state colors. It is also possible the House may table the pending Bobcat bill.

Though I realize your students must be very disappointed in the disposition of this bill, this is a great learning opportunity for them. I have sponsored many bills, most of which, by a huge majority, have failed to become law. No small effort was exerted in an attempt to see these bills pass and yes, I was disappointed.

The House has had well over 800 bills filed this session, can you imagine if even 50% of them had become law? Your students have learned a great lesson from the legislative process they experienced and failure is one of those experiences.

Thank you again for writing,
Steve

Steve Beaudoin
N.H. State Representative
Strafford District 9
Rochester
——————————-

Mr. Smith,

Unfortunately, I was busy at another hearing during the public session and at a work obligation for the executive session, so my comments are only of limited value.

With that said, I would have likely voted against passage as this committee has a significant amount of work and bills like the state poem and this one take us away from oversight of the various boards and the pension system. In general the committee is one of the busier ones and these extra bills do not get the attention they may deserve. One must consider that we are volunteers and in the case of myself, someone who works a full time job outside of Concord, cannot afford to take more than two days off each week to address this legislation.

I would love for a school class to take on a more technical issue, for example do we really need laws about cutting of hair, or what age to go to a tanning salon, or what requirements need to be met to paint someone’s nails……

Having sponsored/co-sponsored the 3rd most bills this year in the house, one gets used to bills not making it through the system. The founders intentionally made it hard to get a bill passed just to minimize how quickly changes to our government can take place. Specifically there are 3 separate gates [ House, Senate and Governor] to get through before a bill becomes law and this adds a significant amount of impedance to the system and this tends to slow down how quickly a statutory change is made.

FWIW, there are bills that I am working this year that are now in their 12th year and we may actually pass both chambers for the first time.

Please share the following quote with the students:
Never, never, never give up.
Winston Churchill
—-

FWIW, I would love to see a public classroom take a stand on drivers ed bill, or finding a solution to the “smarter” “balanced” assessments debacle.. There are some real issues that need to be addressed in the state and it seems our committee is not working on any of the critical issues.

Best regards,
Rep. Hoell
N.H. State Representative
Merrimack District 23
——————————-

Mr. Smith:

Here is the committee report that will appear in the calendar for this bill:

HB-113. This bill would designate the mastodon as the official state fossil (as does Michigan). It is the result of the third (now fourth) grade class project at Bradford elementary school. The Committee was impressed with the quality of the effort. The pupils enlisted the aid of both UNH and Dartmouth professors. Three well-spoken pupils stated their case in testimony before the Committee. However, the Committee felt that New Hampshire has enough cultural and historical artifacts such as our state motto, flower and bird. There was no compelling evidence to indicate that the lack of a state fossil would detract from the imagery of our state nor would adding this designation significantly complement the extant array of our state emblems.

My own personal comments follow.

The members who heard the presentation by your class were genuinely impressed by the obvious work that you as a teacher (I teach at Salem High, BTW) and your pupils did. It is often true that many members (of a citizen legislature) cannot be present for every hearing. However, they are used to reading bills, listening to other members of the Committee and making reasonable judgments on those bases.

However, to varying degrees, the majority of the committee simply did not feel that we need an official state fossil, regardless of the quality of the presentation. One of the professors said that this would raise public awareness of paleontology. I simply do not see that that is true nor do I see that as persuasive even if so.

Many bills are introduced and most of them do not get passed. That is a reality that every legislator understands. Last term, we had a similar presentation by schoolchildren who wanted to see NH adopt orange and red as our official state colors. That bill did not get passed for similar reasons.

Your class should understand that we turn down even requests from the Governor. The legislative process works slowly and persistence (i.e. future efforts) often are successful.

I hope this helps,

John Sytek
N.H. State Representative
Rockingham District 8

Video of a Kearsarge Regional student asking to have a mastodon as state fossil, posted by Rep. David Borden:

——————————————————

I cannot extend a large enough THANK YOU to Thom Smith or his marvelous students.  I am so very impressed and grateful for their efforts, and I am so very sorry that the bill did not pass.

Thank you again to Representatives David Borden, Nancy Stiles, and Tom Sherman.

And thank you so much to Gary Andy.

Thank you to Representatives John Sytek and Greg Smith for their time and their responses to my questions. Thank you to Representatives John Sytek, JR Hoell and Steve Beaudoin for being willing to share their emails and the reasons behind their vote.

While this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver is not about the state fossil bill, it is about the bill to make the red-tailed hawk the state raptor.  This bill was introduced at the same time, and it, too, was voted down.

NH State Fossil? – Part 3: Proposing a Mastodon

I’d forgotten what it is like to be in an elementary school. Stepping into Kearsarge Regional in Bradford, NH, brought it all back: hallways with drawings hung on the wall, classrooms bustling with activity, and a crowded front office where the friendly receptionist—to my delight!—called Thom Smith on an enormous and antiquated buzzer system.

Thom is one of the two third grade teachers, and he’s been there for seven years.  We were meeting that winter day to discuss efforts toward creating a state fossil. He and his now former students had been working on this since October 2013.  It was now 2015; his third graders were currently in the 4th grade.  This had not, apparently, been an easy process.

11.27.14 - trees

[snow in downtown Concord, NH this past winter, picture taken by the author]

 

Ask any elementary child about that state’s symbols, and that child will probably be able to tell you—most likely, with pride–what they are.  Ask an adult, however, and I’d be surprised if they knew more than a few of them.

State symbols, such as an official state bird, an official state fossil, etc., vary from state to state. Generally, they represent a specific flora, fauna or other item found abundantly in that state, so they vary depending upon the environment of the area.  There are no set rules to this, no requirements, no quotas. But a state symbol must be voted upon before it becomes official, so it does require an interested and active group of citizens to propose and see it through.

 

capitallong2

 

[image of the NH State House, picture taken by the author]

 

Thom and these students, with help from Lauren Simpson—one of two 4th grade teachers—were trying to make a mastodon (specifically, Mammut americanum) the NH State Fossil.  That type of mastodon was abundant throughout North America, and it is one of the rare fossils found to-date in NH.

I was thrilled to learn of their project and wanted to hear more.

But this project was not without challenges from the start. New Hampshire, unlike many other states in the country, is fossil-poor.

This is not to say that extinct species of any previous time period didn’t exist here.  It simply means that the geological components within the state do not preserve fossils.  Fossils are that much harder to find, which makes the rare mammoth and mastodon tooth discoveries incredibly exciting.

Unfortunately, most people don’t realize this. And when dealing with something such as a state symbol—which generally indicates an abundance of that specific item—the immediate reaction is to assume that NH doesn’t merit a state fossil.

That January, Thom was optimistic.

NHSF - Class

 

[Thom Smith, his marvelous students, and Rep. David Borden, image courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

I was struck by his genuine warmth and graciousness.  He was eager to talk about the project and his students.  He had, he mentioned when I worried about the time, specifically crafted his curriculum for the day so that we could speak uninterrupted for the next 40 minutes.  We sat amid a sea of tiny chairs and desks.  Our conversation may have been adult, but I was acutely aware of how young the students are, marveling as I learned about their enthusiasm for both science and the political process.  These were passionate kids with an equally passionate teacher.

“When you can apply what the kids are learning to current events and what’s going on around them,” Thom explained, “it makes it a lot more meaningful.”

It was his students themselves that prompted the project. They had learned about fossils soon after learning about civics, and they were concerned that, of all New England states, NH alone does not have a state fossil.  They were the reason letters were written to local representatives in the beginning, and it was the students’ consistent interest and follow-up to Thom that prompted him to reach out to representatives in Rye, the town near which mammoth and mastodon fossils were discovered.  (These fossils were found by Captain Mike Anderson and his daughter, Kelsi, fishing off of the NH coast.)

 

 

When two of those representatives expressed an interest, the project started moving.  Congressmen David Borden and Tom Sherman jumped on board, eventually leading to other support within the House of Representatives, including Congresswoman Nancy Stiles, who was the third co-sponsor of the bill.

Representative Borden, however, seems to have taken a particular interest in the students, their teacher and the entire process.  He and his wife met them when the class visited Odiorne Point State Park.  He has visited them in Bradford as well, introducing the students to his dog.

With no little enthusiasm, Thom said of Rep. Borden, “He’s been amazing.”

The class also had the help of Dr. Will Clyde from UNH and Dr. Gary Johnson of Dartmouth, two paleontologists with whom they conferred to determine the best choice for a potential state fossil.  Both men also agreed to testify in support of the bill.

It seemed to me that this bill was in very good hands.  Thom and his students were organized, they had done their research, and they had the help of people in the field to support them.  While Thom expressed a little nervousness about the outcome of the vote, I was confident it would pass.  And why shouldn’t it? It seemed an easy vote: solid research, a unique state symbol, an engaged group of young citizens who were also interested in science, and—at a time when the budget is forefront in everyone’s minds–a bill that didn’t require any financial backing from the state.

How horribly naïve of me to think so.

——————————————–

You can read Thom Smith’s blog here: https://thirdgradesmith.wordpress.com

Next up, last post in this series: the legislators vote and explain their vote.

NH State Fossil? – Part 2: Interview with 4th Grade Students

NHSF - Class members

[image of Rep. Dave Borden, select members of the 4th grade class working on the State Fossil proposal and Thom Smith, their teacher when they were in the 3rd grade, courtesy of Thom Smith]

Below is the initial Q&A I exchanged with Thom Smith (the students’ former teacher when they were in the 3rd grade); Lauren Simpson (the teacher of one of two 4th grade classes at Kearsarge Regional Elementary School) and the students.

All answers were given as “Ms. Simpson’s 4th grade class.”

1. Why do you want a state fossil in NH?

We want a state fossil because all the other states around us have state fossils.  There is only one other state has the mastodon, and that is Michigan.

 

2.  What have you learned about fossils in your class?

We have learned that there are different kinds of fossils.  Not all fossils are bones.  We learned that fossils are like clues.  We learned that digging for fossils can be a lot of fun, but can also take a long time and be difficult. 

 

NHSF - Class

[image of Thom Smith, students and Rep. Dave Borden, courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

3.  Do you ever imagine what NH might have looked like when mastodons lived? Does Mr. Smith’s/Ms. Simpson’s class make you think about things like that?

 

We know the Earth does not look like it did back when mastodons roamed the Earth.  The White Mountains were probably really tall back then, because the mountains hadn’t eroded as much.  Mount Sunapee was probably taller back then, too. 

 

NHSF - at statehouse

 

[some of the students getting a tour of the NH State House by Rep. Borden, image courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

4. Do you think you’d ever want to work with fossils? Discovering them or excavating them as paleontologists?

 

Yes, because…

  1. it might be cool to find a real fossil from way back and just be able to feel it.
  2. you could see the animals back then that don’t exist anymore.
  3. I think it would be fun digging fossils up like a treasure hunt.
  4. You might go on a really long fossil hunt. You might not find anything interesting but you also might find undiscovered species.  You would need a long attention span, though. 

 

5.  What do you think about the process of making a mastodon the state fossil? Has it been hard?  Or has it been fun?

 

I think…

  1. It’s a very long, hard process; it might actually take too long.
  2. It will be fun and a great way for us to learn about bills and stuff like that.

 

NHSF - at statehouse 2

[image of students touring the NH State House with Rep. Dave Borden, courtesy of Thom Smith]

 

6.  Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would want people to know about on the blog?

 

  1. People should read up on the mastodon.
  2. A fossil of a mastodon was found on the coast of Rye, NH.
  3. It’s going to be really fun to see if we can make it be our state fossil.
  4. If other kids can make other state symbols, we can make this the state fossil.

————————-

This is the first half of posts on the NH State Fossil. Up next, comments from some of the legislators themselves.

 

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Thom Smith, Lauren Simpson and all of the remarkable students who worked so hard toward a State Fossil!  I remain impressed and inspired by all of them.

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Representative Dave Borden who supported the class and its initiative from the very beginning.  An equally large THANK YOU to the two other sponsors of the bill: Rep. Nancy Stiles and Rep. Tom Sherman!

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Will Clyde and Wallace Bothner at UNH and Gary Johnson at Dartmouth!

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to my friend, Gary Andy, who informed me of their work as it developed!

Thank you so very much to Allie Morris of the Concord Monitor for being the first to do a story about this process!

Thank you, Brady Carlson of NHPR and Dave Brooks of the Telegraph, for continuing to highlight this story!

 

NH State Fossil? – Part 1: Interview with Thom Smith

In the Fall of 2013, Thom Smith and his 3rd grade class in Bradford, NH began their quest to create a State Fossil.  After much research and consultation with local paleontologists, Mammut americanum (a type of mastodon that most likely resided in NH) became their fossil of choice.  They were finally able to present their testimony to a committee within the NH House of Representatives this past February.

The story does not end well.

And it is a story that did not get as much attention as another proposal for a State Raptor proposed by 4th graders from a different NH town.

Rather than begin the story with my version of events, I wanted to let Thom Smith and these marvelous students speak for themselves.

Below is the initial Q&A exchanged between Thom Smith and me this past January.

NHSF - Class

[image of Thom Smith with his students and Rep. David Borden, the first NH legislator to take an interest in the bill, courtesy of Thom Smith]

1. How do you discuss fossils with your students?

Thom Smith: Instruction of fossils is centered on the idea that discovering fossils is equivalent to discovering clues about our past and our planet’s past.  Fossils are clues that help us look into the lives of ancient animals and plants.  Students become excited when they discover that paleontology is not just digging up old things, but about being a detective looking for clues that will help tell us the history of our backyard’s past.  We delve further into fossils by learning about the four main types of fossils, as well as by participating in a “mock” paleontology dig on our school’s fitness and nature trail. 

2. How did you (or do you) learn about fossils/paleontology?

Thom Smith: I initially learned about paleontology in elementary school as well.  To be honest I do not remember any further education in paleontology beyond that point – except perhaps teachers occasionally touching upon paleontology matters in other science classes.  I currently learn about fossils by reading up on any current event article that comes to light in the news, or by reading about recent discoveries in magazines or online. 

3. What was it about this class that inspired you to try to have a state fossil created in NH?

Thom Smith: It was a shared inspiration, and honestly, it was my students that originally came up with the idea.  When studying fossils my students often discover through readings and research of their own that New Hampshire does not have a state fossil.  This past year was no different, and when they became discouraged at that fact I asked them if they wanted to try and do something about it.  We had just been involved on a unit of study on citizenship, and I thought it might be a good opportunity for them to see what speaking up for their concerns as citizens might do.  As a third grade teacher, I also get the privilege of instructing our students on the New Hampshire state “officials”.  Every year students become greatly interested in learning about the ladybug, the Karner Blue butterfly and the purple finch.  I also encouraged my students to try to have a state fossil declared in New Hampshire because I knew it would help increase student interest in paleontology and the importance of learning about our state’s ancient past if a bill was to become law. 

4.  Have you had any experience with legislation before? (How have you found the process so far?)

Thom Smith: I have not had any experience with legislation before, yet the process so far has been very educational and encouraging.  Representative David Borden, who was the first state representative to offer our class his assistance, has been incredible.  He is a kind, sincere individual who really cares about our state’s youth and education.  He has gone to great lengths to encourage and educate our school’s students about state legislation, and has done so with a humble and generous attitude.  He understands that this quest for a state fossil is not just because some students in a small town in New Hampshire want one, but because these students who wish to have a voice have good reasons for their request and need supportive adults to help them.  The process of legislation takes a lot of time, but I think it is understandably so, at least in this circumstance.

 

5. The Concord Monitor article indicates that you connected with Dr. Gary Johnson at Dartmouth and Dr. Will Clyde at UNH. What prompted you to connect with these two people? What have you learned from them?

Thom Smith: The class initially needed advice on discerning which fossil they believed would be the best fossil to represent our state.  I connected with Dr. Will Clyde at UNH because the class watched a news clip on WMUR that featured Dr. Clyde providing his expertise.  I connected with Dr. Johnson because I searched online for other experts on fossils from New Hampshire and discovered that his sedimentary geology field of study led him to the discovery of fossilized dinosaur footprints.  Both professors were immediately helpful and encouraging.  We learned that New Hampshire is not a good state in searching for fossils because of its granite make-up, but that fossils have been found in NH, including brachiopods, mammoth and mastodon fossils.  The mammoth and mastodon fossils had been found more recently, including by fishermen off the coast of Rye.  We more recently learned of support for our classes’ request from Professor of Geology Wallace Bothner at UNH as well.

6. Did your students think anything other than a mastodon should be the state fossil?

Thom Smith:  I found the decision to determine what fossil should be our state fossil another good lesson in citizenship responsibilities. Our class made a chart with brachiopods, mammoths and mastodons, and in each column we wrote down facts about each fossil and how it related to our state.  We discussed the possible “candidates” for a couple of class sessions then held a big vote.  The mastodon won unanimously for a variety of reasons – ones we outlined in a letter that we sent to state representatives asking for support.  Those reasons included:

  • This fossil was found recently off the coast of New Hampshire
  • This fossil is an official state fossil in only one other state
  • Two well-respected paleontologists from New Hampshire suggested it as a possible official state fossil
  • This fossil connects our state’s present (New Hampshire’s fishing industry) to our state’s past
  • This fossil is a piece of our state’s ancient history that we should recognize, and as an official state fossil has the potential to encourage others to learn about our state’s ancient past
  • Our surrounding states have state fossils but New Hampshire does not

 7. Do they understand what a mastodon is?

Thom Smith: My students understand that the mastodon is an extinct, shaggy-haired elephant-type creature, similar to the mammoth except often smaller, and with shorter legs and flatter heads.

Cohoes mastodon

[image of Cohoes mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, picture by the author]

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

[painting of mastodons from an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum for this post]

8.  Have they seen the mammoth tooth at the Rye Public Library?

Thom Smith: We have yet to see the mastodon tooth (as well as the mammoth tooth) that were found off the coast of Rye, but hope to soon!  Dr. Will Clyde has seen the mastodon tooth and it is one in excellent shape.   The interesting connection to Rye is that our class also learns about the rocky shore each year and visits Odiorne Point, near the location of where the mastodon fossil was found.  Last June Representative Borden and his wife met us there on our class field trip – it was a great experience.

9. What can people do to help (if anything) with the establishment of a state fossil?

Thom Smith:  Advocate for it.  Publicize the possibility – make it known that this legislation is occurring now and that the more support we have the less likely our students’ bill will be dismissed.  Blog about it (like you are doing), post it on social media, email the possibility of a state fossil to friends and ask them to support the endeavor.  Contacting state legislators is incredibly easy – they are often just an email away, and many are ready and willing to hear your thoughts and voice your opinions in the state house.  The first committee hearing on the possible establishment of a state fossil is January 27th*, and we hope there are more that lead to this LSR becoming a state law.

[*This date was pushed to February, due to inclement weather in NH at that time–author’s note.]

10.  Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you think would be important for people to know?

 

Thom Smith: I would want everyone to know that this request for an establishment of a state fossil was made by students who had a genuine, valid concern and had the motivation to do something about it.  This request was to change our state’s history so that others might learn more about our state history – its ancient history.  It may be debated as to whether or not the mastodon should be considered our state’s fossil, and a healthy debate would be fine, but we would not want our students’ quest to be lost in arguments that could go round and round when the request for a state fossil is not just about what the fossil should be, but more importantly why there should be one: having a state fossil would result in a lot of positives, including an increased interest in paleontology at a variety of levels, particularly New Hampshire’s youth.

NHSF - Rep Borden and Thom Smith

[image of Rep. Dave Borden and Thom Smith at Odiorne Point State Park, courtesy of Thom Smith]

You can read more detail about the events leading up to this past March at Thom’s blog: https://thirdgradesmith.wordpress.com

Exciting New Info About Mastodons and Humans – Yukon Paleontology, Part 1

“Good morning!”

It’s not just a greeting; it sounds like a proclamation.

The voice on the other end of the phone is deep, melodic, and—as our conversation progresses—punctuated with moments of laughter.  We have been discussing paleontology in the Yukon, and with each new detail, I begin to wonder why this territory is not making regular international headlines.

Dr. Grant Zazula’s work is fascinating, and it is neither a short phone call nor the only communication we’ve exchanged. And yet, it is all that I can do not to encourage him to keep going, long after social decorum dictates that he has been more than generous with his time.

Dr. Zazula and mastodon leg

[image of Dr. Grant Zazula with a mastodon ulna, part of the Earl Bennett mastodon, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Dr. Zazula is the Yukon paleontologist, a job that has only existed since 1996. His own tenure began in 2006.  With an office in Whitehorse, the capital of the territory, his work oversees an expanse of Canada that abuts Alaska.  It is a land of dramatic beauty, where colors dance in the sky and mountains tower in silent grandeur.

His most recent paper, co-written with 14 other people, made news throughout the world and continues to attract media attention. In it, the scientists present data that completely overturns previously believed information about extinct animals and the impact that humans may or may not have had upon their survival.

“[T]here were two radiocarbon dates in the literature from Yukon mastodons,” he explained in an email. “One that was ~18,000 and the other 24,000 years old.”

“Based on analysis of the paleoecology, that was a time when steppe-tundra grasslands covered Alaska, Yukon and Beringia. There were probably no trees, few shrubs and almost no standing water. It was very cold and, especially, dry. This seemingly is not good mastodon habitat. So either the dates were incorrect, or our understanding of mastodon ecology, behavior and adaptations need[s] to be revised.”

Various species of mastodon once existed throughout the world.  Although their fossils look elephantine, they are not believed to be direct ancestors of today’s elephants. They are, however, part of the same umbrella mammalian group: the Proboscidea (so-named for the trunks possessed by many—but not all–of their members).  In North America, that group contained the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), and the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi).

Cohoes mastodon

 [image of the Cohoes mastodon, NY State Museum, Albany; taken by the author]

Mastodons tended to have straighter tusks and were shorter than their mammoth cousins. They also ate hardier vegetation, food that required a much different tooth structure than mammoths.

ISM - Mastodon tooth

[image of mastodon tooth, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum]

ISM - Mammoth tooth

[image of mammoth tooth, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum; for more info about the differences between mammoths and mastodons, see this post.]

Parts of Siberia, Alaska and the Yukon were once connected in an area known as “Beringia.”  The Bering Strait did not yet exist, enabling animals and eventually the first humans to cross into our continent.  It is believed that humans arrived in what is now North America about 14,000 years ago.

And this is where the research of Dr. Zazula and his colleagues becomes particularly important.

Prior to their paper, one theory to mastodon extinction laid the blame upon first humans: it was proposed that they overhunted these animals.

Sampling 36 fossils and presenting 53 new radiocarbon dates, Dr. Zazula and his colleagues found that mastodons within Alaska and the Yukon were much, much older than the originally published dates.  In other words, their research suggests that mastodons from what was once Eastern Beringia were no longer present when the first humans appeared.

The path to this remarkable research did not happen overnight.

The foundation appears to have been laid by two different events: by the chance meeting of Dr. Zazula and a gold miner, and later, by the PhD work of a graduate student.

If one reads the acknowledgements on the aforementioned paper, Dr. Zazula references Earl Bennett as both the donor of a partial mastodon skeleton and his inspiration to learn more about mastodons within the Yukon.

“Earl is a great Yukoner,” Dr. Zazula wrote when asked about this. “He mined for gold underground in the winters with a pick and shovel, decades ago. He worked on big gold dredge machines. And, he loves paleontology.

“While mining, he made collections of Ice Age bones that were just left around the mining camp or were encountered while mining. He eventually amassed an amazing collection.

“In the early 1970’s a gold dredge on Bonanza Creek hit a skeleton of a mastodon. An incredibly rare find! Someone collected it and was looking to sell it. So, Earl bought the skeleton just to make sure that it never left the Yukon. He had it in his garage for decades.

“One day a mutual friend introduced me to him in a coffee shop, about a year after starting my job [as the Yukon paleontologist]. He said that he had a mastodon skeleton and wanted me to see it. I ‘corrected’ him, saying that it was more likely a mammoth, because we almost never find mastodons in the Yukon. He assured me he know the difference and said he would see me tomorrow at my office.

“The next day he backed his truck up and in it was a partial mastodon skeleton. I couldn’t believe it. There were several postcranial bones, some vertebra, scapula, parts of the skull and parts of the mandible with teeth. It was amazing. I wanted to find out how old it was, and that was one of the inspirations for this project. Earl is a good friend now and big supporter of our research.”

Bennett mastodon skeleton

[Paleontologist Grant Zazula with a partial American mastodon (Mammut Americanum) skeleton found on Bonanza Creek and donated to the Yukon fossil collection by Earl Bennett, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

That partial skeleton was indeed one of the many fossils sampled for the paper.

Dr. Jessica Metcalfe, one of the co-authors, also prompted this research when conducting work for her PhD.

“[S]he was doing a project looking at stable isotope ecology of mammoths and mastodons in various places in North America,” said Dr. Zazula.

Jessica Metcalfe with mammoth bone

[image of Dr. Jessica Metcalfe with mammoth bone, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Her work included Yukon fossils that were sent to the lab at the University of Arizona to be radiocarbon dated.   Those dates turned out to be older then 50,000 years old.

“So that’s what got me thinking,” he continued, “‘well, maybe those original published dates are wrong.’”

“The first step was to re-date [the specimens that had produced the original published dates]. The new dates turned out to be >50,000 years. So we knew there was a problem with the previous dates. We figured then we should date as many as we could get our hands on.”

This lead Dr. Zazula to connect with Dr. Ross McPhee, another co-author.

“I got in touch with him early because he oversees collections at the American Museum of Natural History, [and] he has a big interest and lots of experience working on Ice Age extinctions. [H]e’s an excellent writer and really kind of kept us going with some of the writings. He was really integral to keeping things together.”

The paper eventually involved a total of 15 people.

“I feel pretty strongly that if you worked on it and contributed to it, then you should be considered an author,” Dr. Zazula stated.  “So it ended up being a long list.”

One of the first aspects their paper addresses is the reason behind why the original published dates are incorrect: the dating analyses were contaminated by fossil conservation methods.

“Humic acids in soils can be absorbed by the bones and teeth and chemically bind themselves to the collagen,” he wrote, explaining further. “So, modern ‘young’ carbon in those acids basically contaminates the ‘old’ collagen in the ancient fossil. And, it can be tricky to remove.

“The same with consolidants in museums. Varnish, glue, and other substances to preserve fossils can be absorbed into the bone and chemically bind with the collagen in the bone. These substances probably contain young, modern carbon which messes up the radiocarbon dating measurements.”

When asked whether museums continue to use the same preservation products that contaminated the dates, he wrote, “Yes, for sure. The thing is now museums keep better records of what they use. Many of the fossils we dated were collected in the 1940’s or at least several decades ago. Museums were not that vigilant about keeping detailed records on those things then. Also, they seemed to put preservatives on everything. Now, at least if we know what was put on it, the chemistry can by developed to remove it. Most of the common preservatives now are soluble in alcohol or acetone and can be dealt with. The problem is when they are unknown.”

We discussed this further by phone.

“One thing about Alaska and the Yukon,” he said, “is that the Ice Age bones that come out of the ground are so well preserved because of the permafrost. In other localities, say, the deserts of the American Southwest or the Great Basin or the Plains, where bones have been out in the sun and [are] dry and hot, they [sometimes] fall apart really easily when they come out of the ground. They need to be glued and consolidated with these various types of museum products.

“So you kind of have to weigh the different values.

“Say if it’s a specimen that’s already been radiocarbon dated, and it starts to slowly disintegrate, well, then you kind of have to intervene or else you’re just going to end up with a box of dust and broken bone. You have to decide whether the importance is more with display or preservation of the morphology versus needing to radiocarbon date or other types of analysis.

“[Y]ou have to look at the pro’s and con’s of whether the sampling [for radiocarbon dating] will ruin the specimen or not, and what is the potential information that can be gained by doing it. To me, I feel that having a research collection [in the Yukon], it’s all about research and learning new things from these specimens.”

Ultimately, I wondered whether Dr. Zazula expected the results he and his colleagues uncovered.

“I wasn’t quite sure,” he answered. “I had the gut feeling that these previously published radiocarbon dates were probably wrong. It didn’t make a lot of sense ecologically to have mastodons living in the far North when it was seemingly habitat they couldn’t live in: habitat with grassland and cold, dry steppe tundra conditions, no trees and very few shrubs.

“But there [was] also a part in the back of my mind that thought, ‘well, if those [previously published dates] were right, that’s maybe even more interesting because they are telling us something about mastodons and their behavior and their adaptations that we didn’t know before.’”

————

It was a great honor and pleasure to connect with Dr. Grant Zazula! Not only patient with my myriad questions, he is an adept and fascinating ambassador for the Yukon. A Mammuthus columbi-sized thank you to him!

A Mammuthus columbi-sized thank you to Dick Mol, as well, who is the reason behind this post!

Dick Mol with horse skull

[image of Dick Mol with fossil horse skull, found near Dawson City, Yukon; courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Yukon Paleontology Program: http://www.tc.gov.yk.ca/palaeontology.html

Articles and publication referenced:

 

Listen to Dr. Zazula discuss his paper on the CBC’s Quirks & Quarks: http://www.cbc.ca/radio/quirks/quirks-quarks-for-dec-6-2014-1.2864605/mastodons-made-an-early-exit-from-the-north-1.2864634