Valley of the Mastodons – final pictorial interlude

A final compilation of images and Twitter screenshots related to the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit!

KTLA anchor with Eric Scott and Kathleen Springer at the Western Science Center before filming for a TV spot about “Valley of the Mastodons.”  Notice the glassed display in the right corner: that’s where the fossils belonging to a mastodon nicknamed ‘Lil Stevie’ reside. They were taken out and studied during the workshop.


Brian Switek’s tweet picturing Eric Scott, Dr. Brett Dooley and Dr. Andrew McDonald (the new museum curator) taking Lil Stevie’s fossils out of the case for study.

 

Unsung hero Dr. Brett Dooley–who was responsible for extensive driving of paleos and writers to the museum and its events–and kind Dr. Andrew McDonald–newly hired museum curator who started work the week of the workshop!–removing Lil Stevie’s fossils.

 

The indefatigable Brittney Stoneburg–the Western Science Museum’s ‘Marketing and Events Specialist’–who made all of us feel at home and tended to a million details that ensured a marvelous experience and a smooth operation!

Another unsung hero: Darla Radford, Collections Manager at the Western Science Center!

 

 

Dr. Jeremy Green and Dr. Katy Smith taking measurements on one of Lil Stevie’s tusks.

Dr. Katy Smith measuring Lil Stevie’s fossils.

 

Brian Switek and Dr. Katy Smith

On the museum floor with visitors

Brian Switek and Dr. Ashley Leger on the museum floor

 

 

A great example of how Dr. Bernard Means (and often, Aubree, a student at the nearby Western Center Academy) digitalized fossils.

Pictures of Aubree, Dr. Bernard Means and Aubree’s dad, thanks to tweets by Dr. Bernard Means!

 

Dr. Chris Widga working on mastodon fossils, per a tweet from Dr. Bernard Means.

 

Victor de la Cruz, the Western Science Center’s Maintenance Technician, as he puts up the many white boards for the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit.

Some of the mastodon teeth and mandibles on display, pictures taken before glass was added and the exhibit was completed.

Dr. Alton Dooley, jr. with the Zygolophodon fossil on loan from the Alf Museum.

Kathleen Springer taking samples from a mastodon fossil to determine whether the black substance is carbon or manganese.

Dr. Chris Widga scanning the larger fossils for digitization.

Dr. Jeremy Green, PhD candidate Greg Smith and Michael Pasenko working on the mastodon nicknamed ‘Max.’

 

PhD candidate Greg Smith working on Max’s teeth.

Greg Smith and Dr. Jeremy Green working on Max. 

Greg Smith–remarkably patient and good-natured as I take yet another shot of him working on Max’s teeth. 

 

Dr. Alton Dooley, jr; Brittney Stoneburg; Max the Mastodon (mascot); Eric Scott; Dominic Cumo; Dr. Grant Zazula at the opening of the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit.

This is how I first learned of Dominic Cumo–through @MaxMastodon from #SVP2015!  It was an honor to meet him in person at the exhibit opening!!

 

Poet Christina Olson’s tweets; my favorite!

 

 


Images from my crappy cellphone: the view from my window as I left California at night and then the view as I arrived in NH at 10am the next morning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Valley of the Mastodons – Part 2: Experimenting with an Exhibit

We could hear singing and playful shouting from the bus in front of us.  Those of us in the car behind them—a much smaller vehicle carrying an apparently more sedate group–looked at each other and started laughing.  We’d parked briefly at the edge of an enormous grapefruit orchard, its rows of trees mostly silhouettes and shadows against the moonlight.  A few people jumped out to pick grapefruit (someone knew the orchard owner; this was encouraged). And one person burst into a loud rendition of ‘O, Canada!’ somewhere in the darkness amongst the trees.

(Moon over cedars in Idyllwild–the view from my seat in the open-air seating of the Brew Pub we were visiting; image taken with my crappy cellphone)

Our jovial group was on its way back from a trip up in the mountains to Idyllwild, a beautiful little town that lived up to its name. Everything was quaint and rustic, nestled amongst giant cedars.  Getting there meant leaving the valley where the Western Science Center resides—a flat expanse of land—and then driving up narrow roads that twist as they go higher and loop back and up and around in ways that cause one to simultaneously appreciate the views and feel vaguely car-sick.

Along the way, Alton and Brett (Dooley) pointed out a specific plant dotting the landscape around us—one of the very plants depicted in the mural by paleoartist Brian Engh now hanging in the museum.

 

(The mural now hanging in the Western Science Center by Brian Engh; screenshot from his website: Dontmesswithdinosaurs.com)


(Screenshot of the lower right corner, highlighting the plant that still grows in the San Jacinto mountain area)

I knew his artwork was based on the fossil record of the Diamond Valley Lake Local Fauna, but I didn’t realize this plant existed today.  Something about that seemed marvelous to me: that here was a plant whose ancestors lived when Pleistocene animals roamed the area.  A species that survived when so many others didn’t; a connection to life thousands of years ago.

Brian’s mural depicts what might have occurred to Max, the nickname for the enormous mastodon at the Western Science Center, and only one part of the 689 mastodon fossils recovered by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and their team in the 1990s.  Injuries on Max’s jaw prompted Brian to research how modern bull elephants might receive similar wounds.  This depiction of two male mastodons engaged in combat–surrounded by plants, insects, birds and amphibians matching the fossil record of the area–is the result.

(Picture of Brian Engh with his original artwork in front of the mural at the Western Science Center, photo by Jeanne Timmons)

 

Twelve or so partial skeletons of mastodons went on display in the “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit following the three-day workshop hosted by the museum. Many exhibits may have put the fossils into body displays—illustrating what each animal may have looked like as a complete skeleton.  The Western Science Center, however, kept the fossils in their jackets – offering visitors another peek into paleontological work.  Illustrations of a mastodon skeleton—the specific bones in that fossil jacket highlighted—appear above each fossil, along with where in Diamond Valley Lake it was found and what year.  Next to that, each fossil has a white board, where scientists at the workshop posed a question or highlighted their observations after studying the fossils.

 

 

(Images of one particular mastodon fossil still in its jacket, the display text above it detailing what part of mastodon anatomy is seen here and where it was found, and Kathleen Springer’s notes on it; photos by Jeanne Timmons)

 

 

(Images of a cast of Max’s skull and Dr. Alton Dooley jr’s notes on it; photos by Jeanne Timmons)

 

 

Just as visitors could ask paleontologists questions as they worked on the floor of the museum the days prior, paleontologists were available on opening night to answer questions anyone had while exploring the exhibit.

“I think it’s really fun to talk to ANYBODY about mastodons or paleontology,” Katy (Smith) explained in a phone interview prior to the event.

This sentiment seems to encapsulate the enthusiasm I witnessed by all of the scientists attending.

“’Valley of the Mastodons’ was a very new experience for me! I’ve been to lots of classic conferences, but never one that was this open to the community,” wrote Ashley (Leger) in an email. “I’ve also never put together a new exhibit during a conference!!  Having real-world paleontologists available to interact with museum-goers of all walks of life was really interesting!  I thought we got to meet a lot of wonderful folks, talk about things that interest us, and give them a whole new take on their museum.  Anyone can go to a museum and read the signage, but not everyone can ask a scientist a question and get an answer immediately.”

(Dr. Ashley Leger answering questions of a very engaged group of museum visitors on opening night of the exhibit; photo by Jeanne Timmons)

 

 

“I think what transpired on Aug 2-4, 2017 at the Western Science Center is just incredible,” Kathleen (Springer) wrote.

As mentioned earlier, Kathleen and Eric (Scott) lead a team of volunteers over 7 years of excavations in the Diamond Valley Lake area.  Before construction even began on the human-made reservoir, Kathleen maintained that fossils would be profuse at the depths they intended to dig.  This was in direct opposition to the view held by the paleontologist initially hired for the job. When digging began and bones began surfacing, however, Kathleen and her team were hired.

“The whole reason we have that collection in that museum is because she knows her geology,” Eric said in a phone interview.

“Throughout that project,” he continued, “Kathleen, and to some extent, I had to keep reminding them, ‘if you’re digging, you’re going to find [fossils].’ I don’t know [if] they didn’t want to hear it, but they had to keep being…” Here, he paused as if searching for the right word. “…encouraged. They just didn’t get the geology, even when she told them. They just kept thinking ‘this is a one-off. Or maybe a two-off.  But we can’t keep hitting this stuff, right?’ And the answer is: yes, you can.”

(Details of one of the mastodon fossils — in this case skull and tusk — in the exhibit.  None of these fossils have been on display since their discovery in the 1990s by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and team; photos by Jeanne Timmons.)

 

Understanding the amount of work and time Kathleen and Eric put into uncovering and caring for the 100,000 fossils now at the museum, as well as knowing that this Pleistocene treasure had been largely unstudied, Kathleen’s enthusiasm for the workshop and event is significant.

“An amazing assemblage of paleontologists came together to talk and study mastodons,” she wrote. “That combined with the ‘Valley of the Mastodons’ exhibit, and the public interaction that ensued, was just fantastic. So much collegial dialogue occurred during and has continued since.”

“I’m happy [the fossils are] in such a beautiful place,” she said, “and they’re curated so wonderfully.”

 

(Image of part of the exhibit space before it was open to the public and before most of the displays were hung; photo by Jeanne Timmons.)

Valley of the Mastodons (initial pictorial interlude)

Following my last post, I wanted to include some pictures of the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit, including tweets leading up to and during the event. (You can see a lot more on Twitter by searching on the hashtag #ValleyoftheMastodons — no Twitter account needed to do this.) These are just some highlights.

 

 

Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott – our heroes! – the two paleontologists who worked for a decade on the Diamond Valley Lake excavations (7 years of digging; 3 years of research), producing 100,000 fossils now housed in the Western Science Center. Their work not only populates the Hemet, CA museum, it also helped prompt the “Valley of the Mastodons” event – an opportunity for paleontologists to study these largely unstudied fossils (over 600 of which are mastodons!)

 

Dr. Brett Dooley doing research in advance of the event.

Below, the amazing staff at the Western Science Center get the exhibit space ready with an incredible mural done by Brian Engh.

 

Most of the event participants had connected in some way (by Twitter, by work or by research), but most of us hadn’t met in person.  Dr. Bernard K. Means (Virginia) and Dr. Grant Zazula (Yukon, Canada) were the first to arrive.

 

 

The rest of us trickled in throughout the next day or so.  At each layover, I checked Twitter–eager to see who had arrived, what was going on.

Taken upon my arrival at the airport in California, where the first person I met was Dr. Jeremy Green (Ohio) followed by Dr. Brett Dooley (Hemet, CA), who graciously drove us the hour + back to where we were staying.

 

Where we were housed during the event.  These were described as “cabins”, and as such, I anticipated bunk beds, shared space, community rooms and rustic accommodations.  Wow, was I wrong! Separate cabins (mini-homes) with air-conditioning, wifi, comfortable beds…..

 

One of the many rabbits that could be seen in the area — day or night — as shown in Alton’s tweet below.


One of the first things I saw when I stepped out of the car at the Western Science Center. (Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?) Despite the many signs wherever we went, I saw exactly zero snakes.

Quick shot taken outside the museum on the first morning there.  The clouds are misleading; rain is rare in the area.

Shot taken looking out from the museum.

Some of the many mountains surrounding the museum.

 

The museum displays — designed by Kathleen Springer, Eric Scott and a design team — are GORGEOUS, and particularly helpful for those of us who aren’t yet able to tell which bone goes where (outside the biggest ones).  That’s Xena, a Columbian mammoth.  Beyond her is a huge fossil sloth.

In front is Max, the iconic and very large mastodon at the Western Science Center, alongside Xena.

 

Downsized this image because it is blurry, but HERE is the reason for the green tape Katy packed (in tweet above).

Another image of Katy at work.

Grant working on mastodon molars he brought from the Yukon.

Jeremy working on a tusk.

Dr. Chris Widga looking at a fossil he’d 3D scanned.

Doug, Brian Switek, Dr. Andrew McDonald (the museum’s new curator), Chris, Katy and Christina Olson (resident poet for the event!)

Michael Pasenko and Dr. Ashley Leger discussing paleontology (perhaps mammoths, perhaps gomphotheres!)

 

 

You can check out the videos here: http://ktla.com/2017/08/02/valley-of-the-mastodons-exhibit-at-the-western-science-center/

Valley of the Mastodons – Part 1

There is a certain quiet at that altitude.  A height where the normal cacophony of daily life—human and otherwise—fades into the wind; where the senses of sight and smell take over; where it is easy, in that relative silence, to contemplate the eons that have come and gone, and what those eons have left in their wake.

Image of Diamond Valley Lake, taken by Jeanne Timmons

 

We were not in the Alps, but we were at a considerable height, surrounded on all sides by a dearth of civilization. The only beings making any kind of noise atop the viewing point for Diamond Valley Lake were those in our small group: a handful of paleontologists, a geologist, an archaeologist, the museum’s PR person, a poet, a paleoartist and a couple of writers.  It was why we’d all come from various places in North America to Hemet, California.

Not for the lake, of course.  But what had been found deep beneath it, before the lake had even come into existence.

Its origins took shape over two decades ago, when a site was needed to create a 6-month emergency water supply for southern California.  It had to be enormous, it had to be situated on relatively stable land geologically, and it had to be able–when needed–to provide that water by gravity.  The neighboring Diamond and Domenigoni Valleys met that criteria.

We were looking over this vast expanse of water, knowing full well that through the 1990s, this was where paleontologists Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott excavated for 7 years.  They and their team of volunteers worked six days a week, 20 hours a day in separate shifts, finding 2646 fossil localities that produced 100,000 fossils.

I thought a lot about the depths those fossils lay, the tonnage of rock and sediment above them, sheltering them from the surface climate, the thousands of years of changes.  How—if senses had been a part of their experience—they might have eventually felt the weight of truly enormous construction vehicles slashing into the very rock that protected them. How, in time, a softer, much gentler movement may have shifted the rock and dirt—the work of an army of humans eager to find them. Until at last, rays of light—warmth unfelt for an unfathomable amount of time—revealed their existence.

It must have been incredible, finding the first set of fossils.  How must it have felt to consistently find more and more and more? I wondered, too, about Kathleen’s personal experiences, especially as she knew the fossils would not only be there, but that they would be profuse. 

But we arrived at a different point in the story, long after the initial discovery. The fossils had been long since been collected, cleaned, and labeled. They were now housed at the Western Science Center in Hemet, not far from Diamond Valley Lake.  And we’d come to study them, discuss them, learn from both the fossils and each other, and share that knowledge with the public.

It was a unique idea, the “Valley of the Mastodons” workshop and exhibit.  Dr. Alton Dooley, jr.—Executive Director of the Western Science Center—and Dr. Katy Smith—Associate Professor at Georgia Southern University—invited paleontologists who had studied various aspects of mastodon anatomy to research the mastodons within this largely unstudied fossil assemblage.  But they also invited some of us outside the field: an artist, a poet, a couple of writers.   After a series of days, loosely structured to allow for research and outreach, an exhibit of mastodon fossils would be unveiled to the public.

All of it was new to me; I’d never attended a scientific conference before.  But I had seen the schedules of larger events—days filled with presentation after presentation, exciting scientific research explained to those lucky enough to attend them.  Even with my limited knowledge of such things, however, I recognized this for what it was: an innovative experiment.

How was this different than other scientific conferences?

Size, for one.  Rather than thousands of participants, there were less than 20 of us actively involved.

Audience, for another.  This was not a forum created solely for scientists to speak with other scientists. The larger goal, and one that was woven naturally into each day, was bringing that research to the public. Inviting them in, encouraging questions, sharing what was being learned right there on the museum floor as the research was being done.

And structure. The structure of those days, as mentioned previously, was far from rigid.  Aside from a morning of presentations, where scheduling became important, most days were fairly open—enabling all of us to do what we needed or wanted to do as we felt best to do it.  From my vantage point, it felt like Alton and Katy opened the doors to the museum, pointed to the fossils and said, “Make yourself at home.”  Which is exactly what everyone did! And it’s amazing how fast days go by when you are doing something you love, something about which you are passionate and enthused, surrounded by those who feel the same way.

The first day I felt almost dizzy, watching everything and everyone around me, excited to witness it, excited to participate, if a little unsure how best to move forward.  It was not a question of my ability to engage and then write about it; my uncertainty was determining where to focus, who to observe, what—of all the myriad things taking place around me—to be part of.  There was so much going on all at once!

As an example:

  • Katy measured tusks;
  • Dr. Jeremy Green (Kent State) sampled tusks;
  • Greg Smith (PhD candidate at Vanderbilt) and Dr. Grant Zazula (Yukon, Canada) studied mastodon molars Grant had brought with him;
  • Dr. Bernard Means (VA Commonwealth University) scanned smaller fossils for 3D images online;
  • Dr. Chris Widga (East Tennessee State University, Gray Fossil Site) scanned larger fossils for that same purpose;
  • and others helped move fossils from their displays or the collection for research.

 

Dr. Katy Smith measuring mastodon fossils, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Paleos (and a writer and poet!) at work, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Members of the public congregated near them, some asking questions, many others observing quietly.  The jocularity of some of the paleontologists broke that barrier, changing visitor observation to interaction. I was a bit star-struck myself by these paleontologists. I marveled at their casual charisma, their down-to-earth conversations, their ability to engage people of all ages.

 

Greg Smith and Dr. Grant Zazula working on mastodon molars from the Yukon, photo by Jeanne Timmons

Public observation on the museum floor, photo by Jeanne Timmons

 

Even on breaks, when we stopped for lunch or dinner or any other reason, there were constant discussions about proboscidean research or paleontology in general.   Some of us discussed books we’d read or were reading; others spoke of current research.  With almost unquenchable thirst, I drank it all in–from the most serious to the most frivolous of moments–whether I was part of the conversation or not.  These moments were what I’d dreamed of: seeing paleontologists in action.  I LOVED it.  But taking in everything and feeling such an intense emotional high takes its toll.  By the end of each day, my head reeling with information and experiences, I was more than ready to retire to my own cabin, my own space, my own quiet.

 

 

 

 

The Treasure in Gold Mines: Fossils! – Yukon Paleontology, Part 2

I admit to having preconceived notions of what it means to find fossils and to mine for gold.  It never occurred to me that these two occupations might be interconnected.  Nor would I have ever described the image below as what it actually is: placer gold mining.

Placer Gold Mining - Monitor

 [image of a water monitor, placer gold mine in Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the rainbow?]

That water jet is called a ‘monitor’, and it slowly melts the permafrost, exposing the alluvial gold from the gravel below.

It also reveals fossils.

“Since the beginning of the Gold Rush, people have been finding Ice Age fossils there,” explained Dr. Grant Zazula by phone.

The Gold Rush, an event that peaked in 1898, brought people from all over the world to the Klondike area of the Yukon.  It was once solely the home of several indigenous cultures, including the Inuit, Han, Tagish, Tlingit and Tutchone. But the hope of finding treasure—in an industry that required inexpensive equipment (a pan, a rock pick)—brought thousands to an area that most would consider inhospitable.

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

gold miner Gerry Anhert

[image of gold miner, Gerry Ahnert, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

One of the techniques used to find gold at that time was borrowed from California mining: water monitors.  Monitors were also relatively inexpensive and highly effective.

Back then, as now, these monitors revealed not only gold, but a wealth of fossils.

Assistant Palaeontologist Elizabeth Hall organizing a days collection of bones in the tent at our field camp near Dawson city

[image of Paleontologist Elizabeth Hall organizing a day’s collection of bones at the field camp near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“I’m always pretty fascinated by these stories immediately post-Gold Rush of people finding mammoth skulls,” said Dr. Zazula.

One can see a number of black-and-white images of these and other fossil finds in Ice Age Klondike, written by Dr. Zazula and Duane Froese.  Finds such as this prompted museums to send representatives out to the region to bring back fossils for their collections. One such expedition in 1907 and 1908 is detailed in the Bulletin of the American Museum of Natural History in NY.

“Without the gold mining, these fossils would never be found,” Dr. Zazula continued, referring to today’s fossil discoveries. “They’re using heavy equipment and other types of equipment to move this frozen ground because [it] is essentially locked in permafrost that wouldn’t be accessible without the gold mining.”

Upper section

Looking upstream at 2011 stripping operation

Unsampled tehpra (inaccessible) visible in wall of monitoring drain

TK-11-03TK-11-06

QCreek mine - LOVE THIS - monitor and permafrost - DawsonFieldwork_2011_TKuhn_029

 [images of gold mines near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Melting the frozen ground with these jets isn’t as damaging to fossils as one might imagine. Dr. Zazula described a process in which fossils are slowly removed from the heights of the muck—the frozen silt—and slide down into the valleys below.  When remarkable fossils are seen by paleontologists, the miners always accommodate them, enabling Dr. Zazula and his colleagues to excavate them manually.

Arctic Ground Squirrel fossil skull

 [fossil Arctic Ground Squirrel skull emerging from the muck, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Zazula sampling squirrel nest

[Dr. Grant Zazula sampling frozen sediment along a vast wall of muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

 

It’s an incredible partnership, one that began in the 1960’s with Dr. Richard Harington of the Canadian Museum of Nature. Dr. Harington made annual summer trips to visit the miners and discuss their fossil finds.  It is a tradition that Dr. Zazula and the other two Yukon paleontologists before him have maintained.

But consider the expanse of the Yukon Territory.

Land near Dawson City

[image of land near Dawson City, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

And consider that, as Dr. Zazula stated, “[t]here are 100 active gold mines, give or take a few dozen here or there. And virtually all of them produce Ice Age fossils.  So in a summer, we can collect 5,000 specimens. There’s a lot of material coming out of the ground, and we’re trying to recover it as much of it as we can. It’s almost industrial-scale paleontology.”

This gave me pause: one Yukon paleontologist in the entire Territory, who—in addition to keeping in touch with about 100 mines in the Klondike—is responsible for all of the other fossil discoveries and research of the area.

“Prior to 3 years ago, it was really a one-person operation and that was me,” he admitted.

With the acquisition of funds, however, Dr. Zazula now has two assistants in the field: Elizabeth Hall and Susan Hewitson.

Elizabeth, Dick, and Susan with fossil Bootherium skull

[image of Elizabeth Hall, Dick Mol holding a fossil Bootherium skull, and Susan Hewitson, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

They have established a field camp near Dawson City in close proximity to the gold mines. This enables them to be in daily contact with the miners in the short mining season—the end of May through October.  Dr. Zazula described this work as driving on back roads to the various mines, getting to know the miners and collecting the fossils released from the permafrost.

Elizabeth Hall recording a collection of bones at a gold mine

 

[image of Elizabeth Hall recording bones at a gold mine, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“Since we’ve done that, our collection has just exploded in terms of the quantity of material that we’re finding.  But it also really establishes and strengthens the relationships that we have made with the gold miners as well.”

Dawson City

 [Dawson City, the previous capital of the Yukon Territory until 1953; At the height of the Gold Rush, this town consisted of numerous wooden buildings and a sea of canvas tents behind them; image courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“[The] program really hinges on [these] two people,” Dr. Zazula wrote. “Elizabeth Hall oversees most of the field work in the Klondike and is the collections manager, and Susan Hewitson [is] a field technician in the summer months.

“They do most of the work to collect the fossils, clean the fossils, identify the fossils, catalog the fossils and organize the database. This really frees up my time to write, do research and other outreach work.”

Elizabeth Hall holding baby mammoth

[image of Elizabeth Hall holding a baby mammoth tooth, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

Elizabeth, Susan and her husband Alex collecting bones in 2012

[image of Elizabeth Hall, Susan Hewitson and her husband collecting fossils, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

 

“Elizabeth started her as a summer student assistant about 10 years ago, and we finally created a full time position for her 3 years ago. We were also students together at Simon Fraser University. She is in the middle of completing a masters degree in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at University of Alberta; her thesis work is on fossil microtine rodents from Old Crow, Yukon.”

Elizabeth Hall in field

[image of Elizabeth Hall, courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

“When it’s good for gold, it’s a good time to be an Ice Age paleontologist in the Yukon because there’s so much material that’s coming out of the ground.”

Tyler Kuhn

 [Paleontologist Tyler Kuhn with a mammoth tusk found at a placer mine in Dawson City, Yukon; courtesy of the Government of Yukon]

 

Again, an enormous thank you to Dr. Grant Zazula for his fascinating insight and most generous time.  

Thank you, again, to Dick Mol.  

And thank you to all of the gold miners who enable Dr. Zazula, Elizabeth Hall and Susan Hewitson to conduct their research and collect fossils!!

Dick Mol and Grant Zazula - Yukon

[image of Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, holding a steppe bison skull; taken by Florian Breier, courtesy of Dick Mol]

———————

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

Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre: http://www.beringia.com/

Publications and articles referenced:

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.

Embed from Getty Images

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