Researching Fossil Ungulate Communities

alces-alces-porkkala-finland

Alces alces (moose), Porkkala, Finland; photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen

In their paper “Patterns of diet and body mass of large ungulates from the Pleistocene of Western Europe, and their relation to vegetation,” published this past September in Palaeontologia Electronica, Juha Saarinen, Jussi Eronen, Mikael Fortelius, Heikki Seppä, and Adrian Lister investigate fossil ungulate communities found in England, Ireland, and Germany.

Not fossil ungulates, fossil ungulate communities.

The variety of fossils studied is just one of the exciting elements of their research.  Rather than focusing on a single species—which, given the limitations of the fossil record, is usually the case—they studied groups of fossils from at least 14 different ungulate species from the Middle to Late Pleistocene.

“[W]e are now at a point,” wrote Juha Saarinen, lead author of the paper, in an email, “where enough fossil material of ungulates and pollen records have accumulated to enable such a large scale quantitative comparison of body size and diets of ungulate with local vegetation patterns in the past as we did. Comparing vegetation proxies and mammal ecometrics from fossil data using such quantitative statistical analyses as we did has, to our knowledge, never been attempted before, so that is probably the most novel achievement of this study.”

The ungainly name of ‘ungulate’ refers to hooved animals: even-toed and odd-toed (Artiodactyla and Perissodactyla, respectively). Examples include horses, deer, moose, rhinoceros, bison, pigs and hippopotamuses.

beneski-brontops-tyleri-brontothere-view-from-skull

Brontops tyleri (a type of brontothere and a Perissodactyl) at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts.   Brontotheres survived until the Eocene, an era that ended approximately 30+ million years BEFORE the Pleistocene, so this animal–although an ungulate–was not part of this study. Picture taken by the author of this blog

 

Using mesowear on the fossil teeth, they were able to determine information about their diets (from browsing to grazing), and by comparing this data with the pollen record associated with the areas in which these fossils were found, they were able to tell whether they ate more browse or grass in either open or closed environments. Body mass for these fossils was calculated and then compared to the diet of these animals.

They were searching for answers to how these species adapted to the environment in which they lived.  How did their body size relate to the vegetation available? Was their body size influenced by possible predators or by other members of their species? (In other words, were they bigger to intimidate predators or were they smaller because they lived in expansive herds?) Or was thermoregulation the single determining factor in how big these animals became, as has been proposed in earlier studies?

 

Beneski - Irish elk

Megaloceros giganteus (otherwise known as Irish Elk and an Artiodactyl) in between a mastodon and a mammoth fossil at the Beneski Museum at Amherst College, Massachusetts; picture taken by the author of this blog

 

It interested me to learn that they relied on what I rather simplistically referred to as the ‘physical observation’ of fossils.

Mesowear analysis looks at the wear and shape of fossil teeth.  Various plant material affects tooth-wear in distinctly different ways, which can be seen both on the teeth themselves and in the way the teeth have evolved.

To be clear, “this is specifically wear-induced shape, not the original shape of the unworn teeth,” Juha added. “In other words, mesowear is the change in the shape of the teeth as they get worn, and different food items cause different worn shape to develop (browse maintains high and sharp features on the tooth surface, whereas grass “grinds” them down leading to them to progressively wear down lower and more blunted the more there is grass in the diet).”

hmnh-mammoth-and-mastodon-teeth

Examples of a mammoth tooth — used to eat mostly grasses and sedges — and a mastodon tooth — used to eat trees and shrubs. Notice the very different shape of these teeth for very different types of vegetation. Proboscideans such as mammoths and mastodons were once grouped in with ungulates, but this has changed. Picture taken at the Harvard Museum of Natural History by the author of this blog.

 

Obtaining data about the pollen record (non-arboreal pollen percentages, or NAP %) meant researching published information and connecting that information with the related fossil sites.

The mathematical work behind all of this–determining mesowear, animal body size, and then relating this to the available pollen record—is staggering.

Surely, I thought, isotopic analysis would have been a much easier way to obtain information about each fossil’s diet at least.  Especially given that the pollen record isn’t always available, or—in one case—runs the risk of being skewed by the defecation of Pleistocene hippopotamuses that grazed in the area.  Why, I wondered, did they rely on methods that seemed considerably more labor-intensive and potentially (to my understanding) less accurate?

“There are a number of reasons for this,” Juha explained. “First, we wanted to obtain as much palaeodietary data as possible, comprising as complete ungulate communities as possible, and this meant dealing with very large samples of fossil molar teeth. Taking isotope samples from all those teeth would have been laborious, time consuming and expensive, not to mention also slightly destructive to the fossil specimens.

cervus-elaphus-richmond-park-london-uk

Cervus elaphus (Red Deer, Artiodactyl) at Richmond Park, London; photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen. Red Deer are one of the most extensively studied animals today. You can read about another study that references Red Deer in this post.

 

“Second, stable isotopes work best at resolving herbivore diet compositions in tropical areas where carbon isotope composition reflects roughly the proportions of C4/C3 –photosynthesizing plants (roughly grass vs. browse) in diet, but outside tropical areas all plants, grasses included, are C3 photosynthesizing and the carbon isotope composition varies also considerably according to so called canopy effect (open vs. closed environment), not just according to diet, and thus isotopes would not have allowed us to estimate the amount of grass vs. browse in the Pleistocene European ungulates as consistently and quantitatively as we could with mesowear analysis.

“Third, mesowear has been specifically shown to reflect average grass vs. browse compositions in the diets of ungulate populations, without being significantly obscured by other environmental variables, such as climate or environmental openness (e.g. Louys et al. 2012, Kaiser et al. 2013). Even if mesowear is a ‘physical observation’ as you say, it has been shown to specifically reflect the amount of abrasive dietary items (mostly grass) in herbivore diets.”

The authors focused on fossil-rich sites, where they could study between 3 – 10 fossils of each species.  They made sure to include species that were browsers, grazers and mixed-feeders.

figure-1-saarinen-et-al

Screenshot of Figure 1 from “Patterns of diet and body mass of large ungulates from the Pleistocene of Western Europe, and their relation to vegetation.” Palaeontologia Electronica19.3.32A: 1-58

 

“I owe thanks to my co-authors who knew much of the available European Pleistocene mammal collections already, having experience on working on them for many years,” Juha responded when asked how they knew of or had access to so many fossils.

Adrian Lister from the Natural History Museum of London in particular has a huge amount of knowledge and experience about Pleistocene mammal collections.

“I was also in contact with the curators of the museum collections, who gave me valuable information about the how much and what kind of material they have. Also, information about important fossil finds and numbers of specimens found have often been published before in scientific journals.

“The authors of this paper represent different fields of research experience on the various aspects of the study. I started to work on this research as a part of my PhD work, and I originally planned it with my PhD thesis supervisors Mikael Fortelius, Jussi Eronen and Heikki Seppä from the University of Helsinki.

“During the work, I visited the Natural History Museum of London, where I worked together with Professor Adrian Lister, whose expertise on British Pleistocene mammals, the NHM fossil mammal collections and mammal palaeoecology in general were very important for this work.”

NHM-DrListerLyuba

Image of Professor Adrian Lister, Natural History Museum of London, with the mummified baby mammoth, Lyuba; photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of London for this post.

 

This work was not without its challenges.  As with any study of fossils, there are limits to the number of fossils available.  While pollen record availability has increased, there is still so much more to be discovered.  And although some species–based on extant examples–do not exhibit sexual dimorphism in body size, the sex of most of the fossils they studied was indeterminate.

“Indeed, these were some of biggest challenges in this study,” Juha acknowledged, “but they were expected and nothing much could be done to completely avoid them. I would add that it was often challenging to connect the fossil mammals with associated pollen records, especially when the fossil pollen was not obtained directly from the mammal fossils. To succeed in this study, it was important to analyze lots of data in order to overcome these problems, and to ensure that the main results and conclusions of this study are robust despite of them.”

The authors of this paper considered numerous variables in their research, and they suggest that ungulate size has a lot to do with a number of factors.  This might seem obvious, but such has not been the result of past studies.  In particular, Bergmann’s rule, which stipulates that body size corresponds largely to thermoregulation (i.e.: big body size is the result of living in colder environments), has been supported before.

bison-bonasus-kraansvlak-netherlands

Bison bonasus (Artiodactyla), Kraansvlak, Netherlands;photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen. 

 

“[T]here has been a lot of discussion as to what ultimately explains the tendency of some (but not all) organisms to be larger in cold climate. This was actually one of the main questions I discussed in my PhD thesis,” wrote Juha. “Already in 1950s some researchers (e.g. Scholander 1955, Irving 1957, Hayward 1965) pointed out that increase in size alone would not give a large enough benefit for thermoregulation in cold climates, especially considering that mammals have far more effective mechanisms of keeping warm, such as thick fur.

“Since then, many authors have noted that while there is a tendency of mammals being larger in higher latitudes, there are a number of exceptions to this ‘rule’ and heat conservation alone would not explain it.

“However, body size in mammals does correlate with food quality and availability and this seems to explain most of the body size patterns observed in mammals (e.g. Rosenzweig 1968, Geist 1987, Meiri et al. 2007, McNab 2010). For example, many herbivorous mammals tend to be larger at higher latitudes because food quality is better there (e.g. because of fertile soils created by glacial erosion and because plant defense mechanisms are lower), and thus predators eating them also tend to be larger there, but for example brown bear body mass does not correlate with latitude but with distance to nearest salmon spawning areas. On the other hand, population density also affects body size through resource availability: individual body size has been noted to decrease in many species of mammals when population densities are high leading to increased intraspecific resource competition (e.g. Wolverton et al. 2009).”

The authors of this paper argue that environment–climate, open or closed vegetation, food availability and quality–and species social structure–large or small herds–affect body size.

“[T]here are many (often interconnected) factors which together affect body size,” Juha explained. “This makes it quite complicated and challenging to study what ultimately regulates body size in mammals (and other organisms).

“In fact, our results do not support Bergmann’s rule as such, because even if our analyses show that larger sizes seem to occur in some species in open environments, this is not because of low temperature, as some of the open environments were in fact quite warm. Also, we often see that when one species was particularly large in an environment, another species was particularly small under those same conditions. E.g., we found out that red deer (Cervus elaphus) tends to be large in open environments, but wild horse (Equus ferus) tends to be small in those same environments. Thus, our results do not support the assumption of Bergmann’s rule or any other “single-cause” explanation for ungulate body size variation.

“What ultimately regulates ungulate body size is primarily food quality and availability, which is affected by the interplay of vegetation structure (regulated by environmental temperature, precipitation and soil fertility), interspecific resource competition (depending on the presence of competing species) and intraspecific resource competition (depending on population density). For example, species with large population densities in open environments, such as reindeer, bison and wild horses, could be small under those conditions because of increased intraspecific resource competition, whereas species with smaller population densities in open environments, such as red deer are large under such conditions, e.g. because of abundant, high-quality food and diminished plant defense mechanics. This is also the main conclusion concerning our results of Pleistocene European ungulate body size variation.”

“I think that studying how mammals in the past interacted with their environments is important for understanding how these interactions work in general,” he concluded. “At present, environments and their mammal faunas are so heavily influenced by human activities, and they have lost so much of their original diversity, that I believe that we simply need to study fossil mammals and their palaeoenvironments to better understand how these things have worked and ‘should usually work’ in nature.”

equus-ferus-mongolian-wild-horse-lippeaue-germany

Equus ferus (Mongolian wild horse and Perissodactyl), Lippeaue, Germany;photo courtesy of Juha Saarinen. 

It was a great honor and pleasure connecting with Dr. Juha Saarinen!  Reading this paper and gaining more insight about it from him was absolutely fascinating!  An enormous thank you to him for all of his generous help!!

Additionally, Dr. Saarinen was extraordinarily kind and helpful in clarifying points about the research that I had misunderstood.  That is always appreciated.  THANK YOU!!

Reference:

  1. Saarinen, Juha, Eronen, Jussi, Fortelius, Mikael, Seppä, Heikki, and Lister, Adrian M. 2016. Patterns of diet and body mass of large ungulates from the Pleistocene of Western Europe, and their relation to vegetation. Palaeontologia Electronica 19.3.32A: 1-58 palaeo-electronica.org/content/2016/1567-pleistocene-mammal-ecometrics
Advertisements

Persistence Cave: A rich resource for paleontological research

Caves whisper exploration and discovery.

Anyone who has ever set foot in a cave of any size cannot help but wonder what lies beyond, what lurks in the crevices, the darkness.  Stepping into a cave is stepping into the entrance of mystery just waiting to be revealed.  In a world that has been largely tamed to fit the human species, there are few spaces that still hold an element of danger.  These unknown spaces beckon to the adventurous: “Explore me!” And who wouldn’t answer that call?

Me, that’s who. I am perfectly happy learning about the discoveries in caves from other people, thank you very much.

For people like me, Twitter and blogs have provided tantalizing glimpses of such explorations the world over.  And one of the more fascinating adventures has taken place at Persistence Cave, just one cave of many at Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota.

“Wind Cave National Park is full of fossils. Almost everywhere you go there’s going to be fossils: in the cave and at the surface. So Wind Cave National Park actually has [perhaps] 30-40 fossil sites.”

PhD student Jeff Martin explained more about the work he and his colleagues conducted there last season as he and his wife were literally driving to Texas to begin a new chapter in their lives. He was in the moving truck; his wife was in the jeep ahead.  Jeff and I had been in touch by email from time-to-time over the past year. As luck would have it, and thanks to his seemingly unending generosity, the time to discuss Persistence Cave by phone was while he was on the open road.

Wind Cave—as we know it now—was named because of the air that blows through an opening within.  It was considered a sacred place to the Native Americans long before settlers knew of its existence.  The Lakota people refer to the Black Hills (where Wind Cave is located) as ‘He Sapa’, (although it is listed as ‘Paha Sapa‘ on the Wind Cave National Park site).  Eventually, in 1903, it became the 8th National Park, but the first one to center around a cave.

Persistence Cave, a much smaller and less-explored cave in the park, was discovered by accident by Marc Ohms, spelunker and physical science technician for the park, in 2004.  His initial foray into the cave was brief: moving a cap rock, peering inside, seeing a rattlesnake, and deftly removing himself from the opening.

But its value as a fossil site was discovered thanks to another member of the park.

“Rod Horrocks, Wind Cave National Park Physical Scientist, in 2013, collected some sediment for preliminary analysis to see whether the site is paleontologically productive,” Jeff explained by email earlier.

It was, and this analysis is what eventually brought several scientists from diverse locations together.

Rod Horrocks sent the material to Dr. Jim Mead, Persistence Cave Project Leader, then at East Tennessee State University, where Jeff was a Master’s student at the time.  Jeff eventually moved to the University of Maine for his PhD, where Dr. Jacquelyn Gill was his advisor.

Sharon Holte, PhD Candidate at the University of Florida, was also a previous Master’s student of Jim’s, as well as Dr. Chris Jass at the Royal Alberta Museum,” wrote Jeff, explaining the connections between the Persistence Cave teammates. “He knows that we each excel in different aspects of vertebrate paleontology, and he invited each of us to collaborate on [and] bring our expertise into the research project. I brought Dr. Gill with me to the Black Hills to see the cave and to learn how a paleontological excavation is usually conducted. She brings a different set of skills related to paleoecology and palynology.”

Also on the team are undergraduate Chason Frost from the University of Maine who studies horticulture.  His skills and those of Dr. Gill help the group understand that fossil plants and pollen found in the cave.

Sharon Holte, aside from being one of the three principal spelunkers in this dig, is in charge of educational components.  Chris Bell at the University of Texas Austin studies the fossil rodents; Dr. Chris Jass and Dr. Jim Mead study fossil rodents as well, but include fossil snakes.

“Each person has their role,” he said, “their own ecological-niche, if you will.”

And Jeff?  He is the “bison guy.”

“My PhD research and dissertation focuses on bison body size adaptation to climate change over the past 40,000 years and how does that evolutionary legacy influence the bison we ranch today,” he wrote before he graduated this past Spring. “To answer this, I am using Persistence Cave and other fossil sites in Wind Cave National Park boundaries to geographically isolate my variation to only local animals.”

Wind Cave National Park, currently home to 400+ extant bison, offers information on both fossil bison and their living descendants.

 

EPSON DSC picture
EPSON DSC picture; bison at Wind Cave National Park, public domain from the National Park Service

 

“Collectively, we (Jacquelyn, Chason, and I) will then also look at the pollen grains and macro-botanicals preserved in the sediment to reconstruct the paleoecology and paleoclimate of the Black Hills through the last 11,000+ years to today. This is [to understand] the climate and ecology the bison were living in at these times.”

But let’s get back to the cave itself.

Below is an image of Natural Trap Cave (another exciting fossil cave dig in Wyoming; photo from myfossil.org):

 

Natural Trap Cave from myfossil.org

 

Compare that to an image of Persistence Cave from the top looking in (photo: Chason Frost as posted on Jeff Martin’s blog here):

 

Photo by Chason Frost - Persistence Cave entrance from Jeff's blog

 

 

 

And one of Sharon Holte peering out:

 

CB - SHolte peering out of cave

 

 

Finally, below is an image from the Rapid City Journal of “a tight spot in Wind Cave” (photo: National Park Service):

Marc Ohms WCNP National Park Service

 

When I asked about how this image compares to the space within Persistence Cave, I was surprised by Jeff’s email response.

“The picture above is much larger than the cave we are working in,” he described of the 2015 dig.  “The cave is very narrow and only fits one person’s shoulder width and up to 1.5 shoulder widths in places. The vertical height is similar to the above photo though.”

“I’m a broad shouldered fella’ and very, very tall,” he continued by phone recently. “The space in there to turn around is not quite enough for me, so I’d have to climb in and then climb backwards out.”

“Chris Jass and I are both the exact same height. Chris is a far more experienced spelunker, and even Chris wasn’t going in there.”

Sharon Holte, Chason Frost and Jim Mead were the principal spelunkers for the site.  Only one person could be in the cave at a time, and their only source of light came from a headlamp.  Trowels, buckets and ropes: their only tools.

 

CB - Sharon Holte important gear


“I thanked them endlessly, and I still thank them for all the work they were doing down in there,” Jeff said of his three colleagues. (A video of Sharon’s work in the cave can be found here.)

Work involved taking chunks of sediment in buckets out of the cave, tagging it, labeling the information (where that sediment appeared on the appropriate grid, at what depth, etc.), bagging that sediment, and then sending it down—by zipline, of all things!—to the truck below, where it could be taken to be screenwashed by other team members. (You can see a video of that process here, on Jeff’s blog.)

 

CB - screenwashing for microfossils

Screenshot of tweet during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig

 

Their fossil discoveries have been diverse. Jeff wrote that “[a] camelid, (the species is unknown at this time), has been an extraordinary find. We have 5 different kinds of snakes and at least 5 different species of bats. [A] pika is also an intriguing find.”

 

 

CB - Jim Mead and snakes

CB - fossils found

 

CB - snake fossil

 

CB - toe bone and Jeff Martin

 

CB - Jeff Martins favorite bone found at that point

Screenshots of some of the many tweets during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig

 

“One of the fun things that we ran across was a ton of Ponderosa pine needles,” he mused later by phone. “That’s the primary tree out there now.  Today, they’re mostly a two-needle bundle. In the past, it seems as though they were a three-needle bundle. And we don’t know exactly what that means yet.  So we’re trying to figure out if that means anything at all; if it’s a genetic difference; or if it truly is an environmental difference that it’s responding to.”

 

CB - Twitter conversation about plants

Screenshots of some of the many tweets during the 2015 Persistence Cave (#cavebison) dig; the scientists involved in this dig didn’t just conduct research, they also conducted outreach to the larger public through social media.

 

 

Work did not continue as expected on the site this year for a number of reasons, but it’s not over yet.  Studies on the fossils continue at the University of Maine (pollen and plants); the bison fossils have travelled with Jeff to Texas A&M University where he is now in wildlife sciences; and the rest of the fossils are housed at The Mammoth Site, where Dr. Jim Mead is currently Chief Scientist and Director.

The Mammoth Site is another major connection between many of the team members, as they have each “worked [there] at some point…over the last 40 years.”

As many know, that site is a paleontological (and proboscidean!) goldmine turned museum, thanks to the work of many, including the late Dr. Larry Agenbroad.  Over 60 mammoth fossils have been discovered there to-date, among other fossil species.

Bonebed at The Mammoth Site

Image of the bonebed at The Mammoth Site where excavations continue to this day

 

“He was probably THE reason that I got into the School of Mines [as an undergrad] and was also the reason I got into paleontology,” Jeff said of Dr. Agenbroad.

“I’m not alone,” he continued. “There are several of us that are like that.  We all stem from Larry.”

The reverence in his voice was not difficult for me to understand.

Jeff’s introduction to this paleontologist began when he was much younger, through the 2000 documentary “Raising the Mammoth.” The film focuses on the Jarkov mammoth, and Bernard Buigues’ attempts to excavate it.  The team Buigues calls upon to help include some giants of proboscidean research: Dick Mol and Larry Agenbroad.

A year or so after seeing that film, Jeff’s family traveled to The Mammoth Site.  It was winter in South Dakota, and, he said, his family basically had “the run of the whole place.”  With a graciousness I am sure permeates everyone who works at that site, one of the interpreters (‘docents’) offered to bring Dr. Agenbroad out to meet them.

“There’s 8-year-old me that’s just giddy with joy to be able to meet one of my idols,” Jeff shared with no small amount of enthusiasm. “And then he said, ‘You’re a little bit too young to work for me. Come back when you’re older.’”

“So that’s exactly what I did. I worked for him in [the summers of] 2007 at the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site and  2008 and 2009 at the Mammoth Site as an intern while I was at the School of Mines.”

Dr. Agenbroad passed away two years ago, followed by his wife, Wanda, a month later.  This saddened me as someone who did not know him closely; I could only imagine how this affected Jeff, who had.

“I’ve made my peace with it,” he acknowledged, and then said something that truly moved me: “I have several things that Jim [Mead] gave me…and one of them is a pocketknife that I carry on me every single day. One of the same pocketknives that Larry carried on him every single day. So I’ve got Larry with me, right now, as a matter of fact.”

Jeff and his colleagues hope to resume work at Persistence Cave next year.

As we discussed some of the findings from last year’s dig, he said, “The oldest date right now at Persistence Cave is at 39,000 and the youngest date is at 3,200.  We have some 37,000 years of deposits with bison throughout. And we also have [modern-day] bison living at the surface!”

Jeff’s research, both of Persistence Cave and of Project Bison, underscore his passion for this animal, as well as the desire to understand its ecological significance.

“I’m looking at both the fossil record and looking at their body size, using the calcaneum [heel bone] as the proxy for body mass. And then also comparing that to modern bison that have just recently passed away within the past 1-3 years.  That’s what I was doing this past summer: going to carcass sites and measuring their calcanea. The unique thing about Wind Cave is that they have almost every single animal microchipped. So they can track this animal throughout its life. On top of that, they bring them in once a year and weigh them. So now we have a known mass of these animals and now a known measurement, because I measured some of their calcanea.

“I’ve got some [fossil bison calcaneal] measurements that go up to 180 millimeters, and I also have Bison bison today that the longest that I’ll find are 130 millimeters.  So quite a body size change in between the fossil and modern.”

Jeff presented some of his research at last year’s Society of Vertebrate Paleontology (SVP) meeting in Dallas.

Describing the results, he explained, “As it gets colder, bison get bigger.  As temperatures are increasing, bison get smaller. That has modern day application to the bison industry today. If we’ll have smaller bison with future global warming, we’re going to have to change our management options.”

As I pondered all of the information Jeff had shared with me about the work he and his colleagues had done, I couldn’t help but go back to the images of how small the cave actually is. If Wind Cave National Park has an abundance of fossil sites, why go through the trouble of trying to access this one?

“Surface localities often represent a one-time event,” he explained. “Persistence Cave represents many events over a long period of time. That’s the unique part of this locality.”

I will continue to enjoy their adventures from the safety of my computer!

 

**************

Jeff Martin: you were extraordinarily generous with your time and responses to my myriad questions.  Likewise, I am in awe of how open you were with your experiences.  For being willing to share all of this, I am truly grateful.  It was an honor and a pleasure connecting with you!

When #CaveBison starts up again, you can be sure it will be on Twitter!  Follow these scientists:

@BisonJeff

@JacquelynGill

@SharonHolte

@Pocket_Botanist

@MammothSite

 

You can follow Jeff’s research here and here

Jacquelyn Gill is one of three hosts of the podcast, Warm Regards, which discusses climate change.

 

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1

The current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum is the brainchild of paleobiologist, Ronald Richards.

In a phone interview, he discussed the evolution of this exhibit; excavating fossils in Indiana; and working with neighboring proboscidean experts: Dr. Chris Widga, Dr. Jeffrey Saunders and Dr. Dan Fisher.

 

Chances are, most people—upon seeing the image below—would describe these animals as ‘woolly mammoths.’

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, more info at the end of the blog post*]

And many would not point to the state of Indiana as a rich source of these fossils.

Which are two of the myriad reasons behind the creation of Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons, an exhibit currently available at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis.

ISM - Title Wall

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, title wall of the exhibit]

The exhibit opened this past November, but it has taken years of hard work, as well as numerous people and resources, to bring it to fruition.

“It’s a process that consumes your life,” said Ron Richards by phone, referring to the creation of an exhibit. “It consumed me for a couple years. I mean, there’s always a deadline; there’s always something you haven’t got done.”

“It’s not for the frail, I’ll tell you,” he added with a chuckle.

Ron Richards, Paleobiologist at the State Museum, had the idea for the exhibit back in the 1990s.

Thirty years of work there—a job that involves both educating the public and excavating fossils—has provided plenty of fodder for potential displays.

He remarked how often, after giving talks about local fossils, people would approach him in wonder and say, “THIS was found in Indiana??”

With gentle enthusiasm—a cadence that accentuated his descriptions—Ron described what he hoped visitors would take away from the exhibit: how to tell the difference between mammoths and mastodons, the age and gender of such fossils, a better understanding of the habitat that was Indiana during the time of the Pleistocene, and the knowledge that people at the museum are actively digging up these fossils within the state.

So what exactly is the difference between a mammoth and a mastodon?

Almost universally, the word ‘mammoth’ invokes but one of 160 known mammoth species: the woolly mammoth.

The most common mammoth fossils throughout the United States, however, are that of the Columbian mammoth—a veritable behemoth that probably did not have the same furry coat as their woolly relatives and tended to live in warmer climates.

Woolly mammoth fossils are found largely in the upper parts of North America, as well as in Russia, Europe and China.

In sum: when you think of woolly mammoths, think cold. When you think of Columbian mammoths, think warm.

ISM - Mammoth tooth

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Teeth are an easy way to determine whether a fossil is a mammoth or a mastodon. This is a mammoth tooth. Notice the flat surface with ridges for grinding vegetation.]

Mastodons—the mammoth’s stockier, and, compared to some mammoth species, shorter and hairier cousin—also lived throughout the United States.

Physically, mastodons differ from mammoths in that their backs and their tusks are straighter, their teeth are easily recognizable as teeth (they are bumpy), and their heads are generally smaller.

ISM - Mastodon tooth

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Above is a mastodon tooth.]

Yet the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon are often confused.

According to Mammoths & Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Dr. Adrian Lister, “in their detailed adaptations and their evolutionary position [the American mastodon and the woolly mammoth] were as distinct as a human and a monkey, separated by at least 25 million years of evolution.” (Firefly Books, 2014, pg. 42)

Still, faced with a large skeleton with tusks, four legs, and a short tail, most would immediately assume ‘mammoth’.

ISM - Hebior mammoth

ISM - Fred

[Can you tell which skeleton is a mammoth and which is a mastodon? Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]

How does one pull together so much information–so many possible ideas–into a coherent and engaging learning experience for the public?

“Even I, when I walk through an exhibit, I don’t want to read very much,” confessed Ron. “You have to find a real good balance.”

“One day,” he continued, “we just cut out all the [potential exhibit] labels, and we laid them out in a whole big room. Then we lay down the images of all the proposed specimens. There were about 300! And I realized that when someone walks through this, they want a 45-minute or an hour tour on a 5,000-foot space. How much can we tell them?

“So I just walked through and dictated [the narrative] as though I were giving a special tour for somebody…a VIP… of the exhibit. I timed it to about 45 – 50 minutes. And actually then we converted it into text, more or less.”

Doing so caused him to further realize, “Hey, there just isn’t time to talk about all these little things.”

“We had some high hopes, but it came down to, well, we just can’t do all that. It’s very expensive. We haven’t got the money. We can’t fit it all in. And we’d never get it done.”

He paused for a moment to recall the wise words of an archaeologist with whom he’d worked: ‘There are great projects, and there are finished projects.’

“I understood,” he continued, “that this could go on for a long time. And we really just had to get it done, because it had been dragging since 1990.”

The centerpiece of this exhibit is the Buesching mastodon—a nearly complete male mastodon fossil discovered in Indiana in 1998. It was found on land belonging to Janne and Fred Buesching. The fossil has been nicknamed “Fred”, in honor of Mr. Buesching, who has since passed away.

ISM - Ron Richards, Dan and Janne Buesching

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, Buesching mastodon skull. Pictured from left to right are: Ronald Richards, Dan Buesching, who originally discovered the fossil, and Janne Buesching, Dan’s mother.]

“One advantage we have with an in-house exhibit—and there have been a lot of mammoth and mastodon exhibits out there—is that normally they have to work with casts (as they’re transporting them, and you can’t have curators go with them). Because [our exhibit is] in-house, we used mainly REAL bone. That is a big difference. And the other is that we focus right on Indiana.”

The Buesching mastodon exemplifies this: it was mounted using its actual bones. This feat was accomplished with the help of people at the NY State Museum, who had demonstrated that this could be done on a fossil of their own.

ISM - Fred installation 1

ISM - Fred installation 2

[Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum, installing Fred]

Ron noted another striking distinction: the legs of this mastodon were brought in, mimicking the pose of a fossil cast of this same animal done by proboscidean expert Dr. Daniel Fisher.

Prior to making its home at the Indiana State Museum, the Buesching mastodon was studied by Dr. Fisher at the University of Michigan. The Bueschings had initially contacted Dr. Fisher when the fossil was found.

“He went down and gave them some pointers, some assessments of the site,” Ron explained, “and after that, Dan said, ‘Boy, I’d really like to study this’, so they shipped it up to him.”

“At that point, he took it on. He actually made some casts of Fred.”

“He brought the legs underneath the animal like mastodons and elephants walk. Normally, [museums] stand their skeletons like a bulldog, with their legs real wide. Not only does he understand modern elephants and how they move, but he also has a track-way [of proboscidean footprints] from Michigan to prove it!”

“So he brought the legs in under the animal. And he brought the front ribs together on the chest bone.”

ISM - Beautiful Fred

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the Buesching mastodon as it appears in the exhibit]

“It’s really a piece of art,” he concluded of the Buesching mastodon.

The exhibit contains a wealth of information and exciting fossil displays. Among other things, one can see a simulated dig pit with real bones as they might have been found, casts of mastodon and mammoth jaws that mechanically demonstrates how they worked, and examples of some of the bones discovered in Indiana.

ISM - Hall of Giants

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the Hall of Giants–Ron Richards’ favorite par of the exhibit]

There is discussion regarding the theories behind the mammoth and mastodon extinctions: hunted too heavily by people? Disease? Rapid environmental change?

There is even an audio and video panel designed to give visitors an idea of what it might have been like to hunt a mammoth.

‘So you think you can hunt a mammoth with a spear, huh?’ says a label near a metal spear.

Touching the spear triggers a large screen to initiate an image of a mammoth. The floor underneath the visitor begins to vibrate with the sound of an animal charging, as the image of the mammoth becomes larger and larger.

ISM - Mammoth and spear

 [Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, metal spear and the growing image of a mammoth charging toward the visitor]

Said Ron of that particular display, “I wanted [visitors] to get an emotional charge!”

And to give visitors a sense of just how many fossil sites have been discovered in Indiana, the team at the museum created an interactive map.

“You can push buttons and see where all the mammoths and mastodons were found [throughout the state.] We’ve got about 300 dots for mammoths and mastodons.”

There could be another couple hundred,” he continued, referring to more data from ongoing research that is not included on the exhibit map. “I’ve been doing this research for years, even before [working at] the museum, so I’ve got a lot of dots on maps.”

ISM - Map of mammoths and mastodons

 [Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, interactive map of Indiana, displaying various fossil sites]

That number is extraordinary.

Given how many fossils have been found locally, one might wonder why this is a temporary—rather than a permanent—exhibit.

“We’re a state museum,” Ron responded. “So we deal with archaeology, paleontology, geology, biology and natural history. We’ve got Amish quilts; we’ve got fine art; we’ve got sports history; [general] history; popular culture; science and technology; applied technology. We’ve got curators in all these areas. We’ve only got so much rotating space. And there are other stories. And we’ve got to constantly bring people in the door.”

“I wanted to have a 2-year exhibit,” he continued, referring to the Ice Age exhibit, “but we have granting and funding for a lot of things that need to fill that space. I think our exhibit schedules are set for 5 years out.”

“If I had my druthers, I’d say, ‘let’s leave it in for 2 years.’ But then it starts tapering down. After a while, everybody has sort of already seen it.”

Included in this exhibit is information regarding today’s elephants, a distant relative of mammoths and mastodons, not a direct descendant. Elephants are in danger of extinction themselves.

ISM - Elephants

 [Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum, the plight of elephants today]

This particular part of the exhibit is important to Ron, but he paused to ponder some of the conflicts between people and elephants.

“It’s hard to talk to other cultures and countries and tell them how they should take care of THEIR wildlife,” he mused. “I mean, you look back at North America, and you look at what happened to bison, and the passenger pigeon, and you know, we’ve been through this ourselves until we had conservation laws.”

“Look at how abundant deer are today, but the white-tailed deer were extirpated from Indiana by 1891. They were hunted out. There were none left. And they were all reintroduced [later].”

“Without regulation, you get hunted out into extermination.”

—————————–

 *Initial image in the blog post is of mastodons.

Part 2, discussing fossil excavations in Indiana, coming up next!

Indiana State Museum: http://www.indianamuseum.org/

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons: http://www.indianamuseum.org/exhibits/details/id/278 — on exhibit now through August 17, 2014!

Online Repository of Fossils, Museum of Paleontology, University of Michigan: (which features interactive images of the Buesching mastodon, among many others!) http://umorf.ummp.lsa.umich.edu/wp/

An enormous THANK YOU to Ron Richards for his incredibly generous time, enthusiasm and patience with my many questions!!  An equally enormous thank you to Bruce Williams!