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.

 

 

 

 

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

Stegodon: Does this ancient elephant have origins in Asia?

So much has been said in recent years about the wealth of fossils in China. Almost all of it about dinosaurs: exciting new species, feathered fossils, nest upon nest of dinosaur eggs.  There is no doubt that China holds exciting clues to the history of our planet; one has only to wait to hear of the next discovery.

Within the past few months, yet another exciting find was revealed, but this time about a little known mammalian ancestor: Stegodon.

 

Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephens

Painting of a Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephenshannahleestudio.com.

 

The name Stegodon, to me, evokes ‘dinosaur’, not ‘mammal,’ but this was, indeed, an ancient animal.  Its fossils resemble those of other similar mammals, from mastodons to mammoths to today’s elephants.

 

 

Alexandra van der Geer - shrinking elephants

Figure 1: Reconstruction of four insular dwarf proboscideans with their respective mainland ancestors. Mainland proboscideans: 1, Palaeoloxodon antiquus; 2, Mammuthus columbi; 3, Stegodon zdanskyi [stegodon found in China]. Insular proboscideans: 4, Palaeoloxodon ‘mnaidriensis’; 5, Palaeoloxodon falconeri; 6, Mammuthus exilis; 7, Stegodon aurorae [a type of dwarf stegodon found in Japan]. Based on skeletons at Museo di Paleontología, University of Rome, Italy (1), American Museum of Natural History, New York (2), Taylor Made Fossils, U.S. (3), Museo di Paleontología e Geología G.G. Gemmellaro, Palermo, Italy (4), Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum Senckenberg, Frankfurt, Germany (5), Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, U.S. (6), Taga Town Museum, Honshu, Japan (7). Photos 1–2, 4–7 George Lyras, photo 3 courtesy of TaylorMadeFossils.com, reproduced here with permission.

From The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer et al; photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

When Stegodon skulls with tusks attached have been found, many (but not all) of the tusks are close together–preventing the trunk (the ‘proboscis,’ from which this group gets its name; proboscis —> proboscidea) from hanging between them.

They lived in what is now Africa and Asia, causing continued debate over its place of origin. Until recently, the oldest known Stegodon fossil, a 6.5+ million-year-old partial molar from Kenya, was described by William J. Sanders in 1999.  That record changed this past December when Dr. Hong Ao and his colleagues published their results dating the sediment in the Lanzhou Basin, China, from which a number of fossils–including that of a Stegodon–were found.

And that Stegodon was found to be between 8 – 11 million years old.

 

GSA Geologic Time Scale - Neogene

Detail of the Geologic Time Scale, created by the Geological Society of America.  Stegodon is believed to have existed between the Miocene to the Pleistocene, a relatively small segment of time in Earth’s overall history, but still considerably longer than that of our own species!  (You can view the time scale in much better detail here.) 

 

The fossils of the Stegodon, along with at least 5 other species, were actually found in the 1980s by Professor Xing Zhang of Northwest University in China.  Given the length of time between the fossil excavations and the recent dating of these fossils, one might wonder why determining the fossil age took so long.

Dr. Ao, a scientist at the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues state that western China does not have suitable material for radiometric dating, an oft-used method for this purpose.

When I asked why this was so, Dr. Ao replied by email, “Because volcanic activities are rare in western China during the late Cenozoic, it is difficult to find  in situ tephros or tuffs for radiometric dating (e.g., 40Ar/39Ar dating).”

Instead, they conducted a magnetostratigraphic study, one in which they determined the age of the rock through the polar reversal record.  Combining this with analysis of the fossils provided evidence that this Stegodon is 2 – 5 million years older than that of the Kenyan partial molar.

“We are indeed surprised by our dating results,” Dr. Ao continued, “which document that the Lanzhou Stegodon is the oldest Stegodon worldwide, although the Stegodon  fossil [was] not discovered by us. However, our dating results document it to be the oldest known Stegodon fossil.”

Dr. Hong Ao 1

 

Dr. Hong Ao 2

Dr. Hong Ao 3

Dr. Hong Ao 4

Images of Professor Yongxiang Li (from Northwest University) and his master student as well as several employed workers who helped to excavate mammal fossils, Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.

 

indricotherine fossil

indricotherine fossil2

indricotherine fossil3

Images of indricotherine fossils found in Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.

 

Dr. Ao himself has been working with fossils in the Lanzhou Basin for 5 years.  When asked how  he and his co-authors chose to work together on this recent paper, he wrote, “I have collaborated with them on broad subjects before, thus I [invited] them to join [in] this research.”

Finding information about this extinct species is difficult.  Unlike mammoths or mastodons, Stegodon does not appear to be a popular ancient animal.

Fortunately, Dr. Alexandra van der Geer–paleontologist, indologist, ethno-zoologist and author –has not only studied this species, she very generously made herself available for questions.  Currently, Dr. van der Geer is an Associate Researcher at both the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands. She is part of the Isolario project, a project that studies biodiversity and cultural evolution within an island context.

When I asked why there was such a dearth of information on Stegodon, she wrote, “We can think of several reasons for this.”

“First of all, stegodons typically are the elephants of Southeast and East Asia, where most countries did not have the resources and opportunities most Western countries had when it comes to scientific research and excavations. These activities are costly, and since they don’t have a direct use in the sense that they don’t advance the medical, technical or economic levels of a country, they have, understandably, a lower priority. Furthermore, because of this region, half the publications (especially before the 1990s or so) you can find are in Chinese or Japanese, which is not very helpful to the [English-speaking] world.

“Secondly, stegodons are forest elephants. Forest areas are very unlikely places for the long-term preservation of organic materials: everything is eaten, digested or otherwise broken down into smaller components in no time. The tropical (warm, humid) climate of these forests is not helpful either, as decomposition is much faster here. Stegodon remains only have a chance to be preserved when (1) they are covered fast, such as with river sediments, volcanic ashes etc., (2) or are in an oxygen-free environment, such as sunken deeply into a swamp, (3) or were deposited in a natural fridge such as limestone caves where they are gradually covered in clayish sediment or [travertines]. The same is valid for Palaeoloxodon, the Old World fossil elephant, but Europe has many limestone caves, which are excellent for preservation (for a nice [travertine]-preserved negative skull, see Stuttgart museum: skull cast SMNS nr. 32888 from Bad Cannstatt).

“As you can deduct from these preservation issues, it is more likely to find molars and tusks than skeletal material, which is much softer. The vast majority of proboscidean findings all over the planet consists of molars and tusks, and that is not for nothing. Inherently this means that there is much more information about their dentition and diet than about their bodies.”

I was interested in understanding why Stegodons are portrayed as hairless animals, so very similar to contemporary elephants.  Was this just an artistic guess?

“The hairlessness of stegodons is not an artistic guess but a scientific guess instead,” Dr. van der Geer answered.  “Very large animals with thick skins (pachyderms) in a (sub)tropical environment are unlikely to have a significant hair covering. Elephants lost their hairs secondarily. The information for hair growth is not lost, and baby elephants still have a thin, woolly coat. Woolly mammoths lived in the cold, temperate zones, and needed hair, so they were covered in a thick layer of hairs, and for this is evidence (mummies preserved in the permafrost), but the other mammoths (M. meridionalis, M. columbi, M. exilis, etc.), [did] not, and it’s generally assumed that they had a light coat fitting to the temperate zones.

“Tropical and subtropical stegodons almost certainly did not have any coat that’s worth mentioning. Stegodons of temperate zones, however, may have been more hairy. Indeed, the lack of hairs makes them look more like today’s elephants.”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Stegodon ganesa-model-I.Vjdchauhan-SiwalikHills

Photo of the two life-size models of Stegodon ganesa;photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

“Note, however, that the proboscis is carried very differently. Their tusks are set very close to each other, so the proboscis doesn’t fit in between as in modern elephants, Asian and African alike. This means that the mobility of their proboscis was more restricted, relative to their living relatives.”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-excavation-31-stegodon-florensis

Fossils of Stegodon florensis insularis, from Flores, Indonesia; photo courtesy of Dr. John de Vos (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

Alexandra van der Geer - stegodon-timorensis-mandible

Mandible (and holotype!) of  Stegodon timorensis; photo courtesy of Eelco Kruidenier (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  Anyone familiar with proboscidean teeth and jaws will recognize the similarities instantly.

 

But how do we know that Stegodon–a rather enormous animal–evolved into something smaller?

“[D]warfs and giants are relative. Something can be a dwarf, yet have a considerable size. When we speak of dwarf stegodons, we mean stegodons that are much smaller than their ancestors. For this, you have of course to have identical or otherwise similar elements from both the descendant and the ancestor in order to compare reliably,” she continued.

“The expectation is that dwarf stegodons must have existed on the islands, following the so-called island rule, according to which large animals get smaller in isolation. There is sound evidence that this rule still stands, and is even more pronounced for fossil species (see Lomolino et al., 2013, in Journal of Biogeography).

“Indeed, the many fossil molars from the Southeast Asian islands (‘Wallacea’) are all much and much smaller than the same molars from their mainland ancestors (see Van den Bergh, 1999). True, you first have to know what is the ancestor, and for this you need information about morphology, or how the molars, tusks, skulls and postcranial elements look like. After that, you compare the sizes.

“Note that if a molar is, for example, half the length of the same molar of its ancestral species, the body weight of that animal must have been a quarter of that of its ancestor! (the cubic law: linear reduction 50% means volume reduction 50% of 50%).”

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-stegodon-florensis

Molar of Stegodon florensis; photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  

 

“The most interesting dwarf stegodon is Stegodon sondaari, named after the Dutch palaeontologist Paul Yves Sondaar (1934-2003), expert in fossil insular mammals. This stegodon lived on the island of Flores about a million years ago, and weighted only about 15% of the weight of its ancestral species, S. elephantoides (see Van der Geer et al., 2016, in Journal of Biogeography, doi:10.1111/jbi.12743).

“Sondaar’s dwarf stegodon is not the smallest stegodon, that honour goes to the Sumba stegodon (S. sumbaensis), of only 8% of the original weight. Sondaar’s stegodon is interesting because it may have witnessed the arrival of early humans, possibly the ancestors of the Hobbit, or Homo floresiensis. Its fossils are contemporaneous with primitive lithic artefacts, dated to about a million years ago (see Brumm et al., 2010, in Nature 464, pp. 748–752).”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Sumba-stegodon-sompoensis-holotype-in-Naturalis-Leiden-2

Molar (and holotype!) of Stegodon sompoenisphoto courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  

 

“[R]ecently,” she concluded, “one of the island dwarf stegodons (S. timorensis of Timor) has been dated to about 130 thousand years ago (see Louys et al., 2016, in PeerJ 4:e1788). This excludes, according to the authors, an anthropogenic cause for its extinction, because humans had not yet arrived at the island.”

 

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

So many people helped with this blog post!  (But please remember that any errors are my own.)

Many, many thanks to Dr. Hong Ao (Dr. Ao Hong) from the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) for his fascinating responses and the great images of fossil excavations in the Lanzhou Basin.  I am thrilled that he was willing to answer questions about his research and that of his colleagues! It was a great honor and a pleasure connecting with him!

I am indebted to Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer, who very kindly (and so very quickly–despite everything else she has going on!!) answered specific questions about Stegodon that I could not find anywhere else and who provided pictures of dwarf Stegodon fossils.  It was an equally great honor and pleasure connecting with her!

A mastodon-sized thank you to the amazing Dr. Katy Smith for providing needed and hard-to-find material on Stegodon fossils!

And an enormous thank you to artist Hannah Stephens for her depiction of a Stegodon as it may have appeared in life.  I am particularly moved by the warmth of its intelligent-looking eyes, and I love the tones within its skin.  I adore this picture.  I am grateful to have it in this post;  I am thrilled to have the actual painting hanging on my wall!  Please be sure to check out her artwork at: http://hannahleestudio.com or http://hstephens.blogspot.com

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

References from Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer:

  1. Brumm A, Jensen GM, van den Bergh GD, Morwood MJ, Kurniawan I, Aziz F, Storey M (2010) Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by one million years ago. Nature 464, 748–752.
  2. Lomolino MV, van der Geer AAE, Lyras GA, Palombo MR, Sax DF, Rozzi R (2013) Of mice and mammoths: generality and antiquity of the island rule. Journal of Biogeography 40, 1427–1439.
  3. Louys J, Price GJ, O’Connor S. (2016) Direct dating of Pleistocene stegodon from Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara. PeerJ 4:e1788
  4. van den Bergh GD (1999) The Late Neogene elephantoidbearing faunas of Indonesia and their palaeozoogeographic implications; a study of the terrestrial faunal succession of Sulawesi, Flores and Java, including evidence for early hominid dispersal east of Wallace’s line. Scripta Geologica 117, 1–419.
  5. van der Geer AAE, van den Bergh GD, Lyras GA, Prasetyo UW, Due RA, Setiyabudi E, Drinia H (2016) The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscideans. Journal of Biogeography, doi: 10.111/jbi.12743

References used in this blog post:

  1. New magnetochronology of Late Miocene mammal fauna, NE Tibetan Plateau, China: Mammal migration and paleoenvironments; by Hong Ao, Peng Zhang, Mark J. Dekkers, Andrew P. Roberts, Zhisheng An, Yongxiang Li, Fengyan Lu, Shan Lin, Xingwen Li; Earth and Planetary Science Letters; 1o December 2015
  2. Oldest record of Stegodon (Mammalia: Proboscidea); by William J. Sanders; Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology; Vol. 19, No. 4, Dec. 13, 1999, pp. 793 – 797
  3. Fossil elephantoids, Awash paleolake basins, and the Afar triple junction, Ethiopia; by Jon E. Kalb; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology; 1995, pp. 357 – 368
  4. The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea; by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer, Gerrit D. van den Bergh, George A. Lyras, Unggul W. Prasetyo, Rokus Awe Due, Erick Setiyabudi, and Hara Drinia; Journal of Biogeography; 11 March 2016.
  5. Magnetostratigraphy – concepts, definitions, and applications, by Cor G. Langereis, Wout Krijgsman, Giovanni Muttoni, and Manfred Menning; Newsletter on Stratigraphy, Vol. 43/3: 207–233, April 2010
  6. Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Adrian Lister, Firefly Books, 2014
  7. Mammoths, by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, University of California Press, 2007
  8. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives, Edited by Jeheskiel Shoshani and Pascal Tassy, Oxford Science Publications, 1996
  • Stegodontidae: evolutionary relationships by Haruo Saegusa, pp. 178 – 190, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives
  • Palaeobiogeography of late Neogene African and Eurasian Elephantoidea by Jon E. Kalb, David J. Froehlich, and Gordon L. Bell, pp. 117 – 123, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives

A Personal Fossil Journey in New England

“Can you please help me find the Beneski Museum?”

This was the second student I’d asked. Initially, I’d asked a student for help finding the museum—no thank you, GPS–and then help with elusive parking. My request to the young woman in front of me was to help re-find the building I’d lost sight of amongst many other brick buildings.

She pointed me in the right direction, gave me detailed instructions, and added, “It will take you approximately three minutes to get there.” A thoughtful detail that made me smile that much more broadly.

Students with backpacks dotted the campus and passed me as I headed forward: some lost in thought, some in conversation, others laughing. Their presence, just as much as the rolling hills of manicured lawns, towering trees and historic buildings, made me feel right at home. Although not where I’d attended school, it felt similar, and I basked in the feelings that surfaced. Of course, none of these feelings included the stress or the struggles I felt throughout college. Long gone are the days of working most of the night on papers, studying for exams or the abject terror of oral presentations. No. These days I learn on my own, at my own pace, as I wish, and where I wish. I adore it.

But learning in this fashion is not at all linear.

A recent trip back to see Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, CT, enabled me to re-read exhibits that didn’t mean as much to me when I’d first seen them so many years prior.

DSP - entrance

DSP - great view of tracks bridge diorama

Images of Dinosaur State Park, Rocky Hill, CT, taken by the author

 

Since that time, I’d read Dr. Anthony Martin’s “Dinosaurs Without Bones”—a fascinating journey into the science of learning more about extinct creatures through fossil traces. I’d also spoken with paleontologist, Dr. Karen Chin, about both ichnology (the aforementioned science) and the work of Dr. Martin Lockley—a man who has spent a lifetime learning about and collecting fossil footprints.

Pegasus - Dinosaurs Without Bones, Anthony Martin

Book cover to”Dinosaurs Without Bones” by Anthony J. Martin, Pegasus Books

 

So when I saw a small note about Edward Hitchcock and his collection of footprints, I decided to check it out.

DSP - sign New England ichnology

Informational panel at Dinosaur State Park that mentions Edward Hitchcock and Amherst College, taken by the author

 

Which is a long way of explaining why I had traveled a couple of hours south to Amherst College.

I knew the museum offered other fossils along with Hitchcock’s fossil footprint collection, but I did not expect them to be as diverse or as impressive.

 

 

Beneski - mammoth front

Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, Amherst College, taken by the author.  Smilodon and dire wolf skeletons are on the right.

Beneski - Irish elk

Irish elk (Megaloceros hibernicus) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - mastodon front

American mastodon (Mammut americanum) at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

Beneski - mastodon close-up jaw

Close-up of the American mastodon mandible at Beneski Museum, taken by the author. The lower tusk on this mastodon surprised me, and I spoke about this with Museum Educator, Fred Venne.  Conversations on Twitter prompted very interesting comments by @maxthemastodon from the Western Science Center, @dr_mastodonna (Dr. Katy Smith) and @chriswidga (Dr. Chris Widga).  It is important to note that this mastodon is comprised of components from at least two or more different mastodons.

 

Asking whether I could take pictures in the museum is how I first met Fred Venne, a tall, gracious man who walked toward me the moment he saw that I had questions.
I had never previously met a Museum Educator in person. Fred has now set the bar exceedingly high. It seems artful, his ability to share knowledge and offer insight, yet step away and enable someone to learn on one’s own—a very considerate balance. I marveled at this, just as I marveled at everything around me.

 

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall full great

Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - Fossil Mammal Wall sign images

Images corresponding to the skeletons on the Fossil Mammal Wall at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - view of bottom and first floors

A view between two of the three floors at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author; notice the hint of fossil footprint slabs a the bottom right.

Beneski - gryposaurus - hadrosaur

Triceratops skull and Gryposaurus (a hadrosaur) skeleton at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

Beneski - racks of Hitchcocks trace fossils

Beneski - great wall of tracks

Beneski - footprint on rack of trace fossils

Various images of the many trace fossils collected by Edward Hitchcock over his lifetime at the Beneski Museum, taken by the author

 

It was Fred who informed me of a nearby excavation site. Searching online in his office and writing down the address for me, he then called the owner of the site to make sure he knew I was coming.

(Fred also introduced me to a member of the team who discovered Tiktaalik and visiting scholar, Steve Gatesy. Dr. Gatesy very generously proceeded to explain a bit about his current research, picking up and showing me specimens of single fossil tracks. For a day in which my expectations were simply to see fossil footprints and maybe a handful of bone fossils, this was proving to be extraordinary.)

My GPS almost got it right. I pulled in to the driveway just short of the actual destination, the neighbors smiling and waving good-bye after explaining it was just down the road.

At first glance, Nash Dinosaur Tracks has the air of a campground. Situated in a rural area, one drives up a path to a large opening, surrounded by forest. There is a single building in the corner, a cozy construction with hand-made signs.

Nash Dinosaur Tracks sign

Entrance sign to Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - road to the fossil store

Path leading into Nash Dinosaur Tracks and Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store outside

Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - dilophosaurus sign

Sign depicting Dilophosaurus, the type of dinosaur thought to produce the type of tracks in the area.  “Eubrontes” is a name coined by Edward Hitchcock to describe these tracks.  Image taken by the author.

Beneski - types of Hitchcock tracks2

Image of two types of tracks believed to be made by two different (as yet unknown) types of dinosaur, as defined by Edward Hitchcock: eubrontes and grallator.  Sign at Beneski Museum, image taken by the author.

 

I feel it’s important I mention two conflicting feelings I had when Fred first described Nash Dinosaur Tracks, an area of active excavation with a fossil shop: ambivalence and overwhelming enthusiasm.

I’m not a paleontologist.  I don’t even work in a museum. I’m still learning many of the very basics of paleontology. And I know that in this country, fossils found on personal land belong to the person who owns that land. I’ve read quite a bit about the sale of fossils throughout the world. I’ve communicated with paleontologists who have differing views on the subject.

It is enormously complicated.

Large, beautiful skeletons arrive on the market for auction, sold to those who can afford their extravagant prices and then lost to the general public.  Sometimes, those skeletons are donated to a museum (or sold at a lower price). But in some places, the sale of important fossils means survival for those who sell them, a much different type of economic exchange. The biggest lightning rod right now is the sale of ivory, a turbulent conflict that affects both human and elephant lives, and extends into the sale of mammoth tusks.

Do fossils belong to the general public?  And if so, what public? (Country of origin? International groups?) Do museums or scientists have a right to them above all?

I don’t have answers.

But I do know that I cringe every time I read about fossils being sold, and this colors my perspective on the sale of any fossil any where.  Even on personal land, such as that of Kornell Nash.

So it was with mixed feelings that I walked into the fossil shop and called out, “Hello?”

Nash - store inside

View inside Nash Fossil Shop, taken by the author

Nash - store footprints and fossil for sale

Examples of fossils for sale, some under $100, some $3000 in the shop; image taken by the author

Nash - store Kornell Nash - displaying layers of stone

Kornell Nash, holding a fossil footprint on its side to display the layers of rock; image taken by the author

 

Kornell Nash appeared and introductions were made. He seemed a very gentle, unassuming man.  I learned later that this had been his day off; he had, in fact, just awoken from a nap.  But he mentioned none of that initially.  When I asked about the quarry, he indicated where it was, pointing to a door leading behind the shop.

“Feel free to look around,” he said and disappeared.

Nash - store - outside door - footprints in stone

Stone outside of the door leading from the fossil shop to the quarry.  Can you find the fossil tracks?  (According to Kornell Nash, this stone was obtained by his father, Carlton Nash, from a different location.) Image taken by the author.

 

The word “quarry” in my mind conjures enormous stone and cavernous holes.  This was not such a place.  As I eagerly walked on a pine needle-strewn path, I kept expecting something bigger, something huge. Something to match my expectations of a place that had produced fossil footprints for decades.

What I came upon was a modest outcrop on an incline.

 

Nash - quarry - whole thing from path

View of the fossil quarry from the path, taken by the author

Nash - quarry looking up

View of the entire quarry, looking up, taken by the author

 

As I got closer, something crunched under foot.  I looked around me and saw bits of shale everywhere and I panicked.  Was I crushing fossil footprints?  Shale littered the ground; there was no where to walk without stepping on it, so I continued….gingerly.

Kornell had indicated there were large footprints across the top of the stone, but I didn’t see anything at first.  It wasn’t until I literally stepped upon the stone outcrop that I found them.

 

Nash - quarry footprint and pieces taken out

Example of an area of stone cut out by Kornell Nash, taken by the author

Nash - quarry shale segments

Segments of shale detritus that lines the back of the quarry, taken but the author

Nash - quarry footprint detail

One of the many fossil footprints in the quarry, taken by the author

 

This was my first experience with fossils in-situ.  More importantly, this was my first experience actually touching the evidence of the life of an extinct creature.  While I love fossil skeletons, there was something much more significant–something inordinately more meaningful–in seeing where an actual dinosaur had STEPPED. And it is no exaggeration to say that putting my fingers into these footprints was the closest thing to a spiritual moment for me.

This, from private land with a fossil shop. Not from a museum, my normal haven and revered institution, but from the very thing that caused my self-righteousness.

I thought about this when I eventually walked back to the shop.

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall

Nash - store newspaper articles on wall2

Newspaper articles of Nash Dinosaur Tracks (formerly known as “Dinosaurland”) and Kornell Nash on a wall in the fossil shop, images taken by the author

Nash - store pictures of Hitchcock and Mignon Talbot (blurry)

Pictures of Edward Hitchcock and Dr. Mignon Talbot–a paleontologist from Mount Holyoke College who discovered Podokesaurus in 1911. Kornell Nash’s dad, Carlton, corresponded with Dr. Talbot. Image taken by the author.  

 

There is so much history to the place, in and around the fossil shop.  Echoes of it hang on the walls, yellowed newspaper articles with edges curling and wrinkled.  Letters are tacked to a post.

Looking later on the Nash Dinosaur Tracks website, I was surprised to learn that Carlton (and George) Nash purchased the land in 1939 for $85.  Carlton Nash–Kornell’s father–is mentioned in the book “Bones for Barnum Brown” by Roland T. Bird.  Bird describes his visit with the family and seeing the fossilized remnants of what Carlton believed was an animal lying or sitting down.

Nash - store picture of how his dad found the footprints and animal lying down

Image of a picture of the fossilized trace of an animal lying or sitting down, according to Carlton Nash; picture of this picture taken by the author at the Nash Fossil Shop. This was described in a book by Roland T. Bird.

Nash - store footprints and impression of animal with tail lying

Image of that actual fossil with a slab of tracks above it in the fossil shop; image taken by the author

 

He communicated with numerous well-known scientists, including Dr. Mignon Talbot of Mount Holyoke College, discoverer of the Podokesaurus.  He donated a section of tracks to what is now known as Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech.  A response was sent from Grace Coolidge, the wife of former US president, Calvin Coolidge.

Carlton Nash passed away in 1997.  Kornell Nash has been the owner since.

I asked him if he shared his father’s passion for paleontology and geology.

“In a different way,” he emailed back. “I really enjoyed the travel growing up.  We traveled all over the United States at a time many of my friends didn’t even get out of the Northeast. In a way, dinosaurs are quite common to me. Doesn’t everyone’s father dig dinosaur tracks?”

Nash - store Kornell Nash describing detail of footprint

Kornell Nash describing the detail of a footprint in his fossil shop, taken by the author

 

I had a long way to drive home, and it was a beautiful drive on a beautiful day.  Autumn in New England means brisk air, pumpkins on the side of the road, corn stalks decorating porches. My head churned with what I’d experienced.  I pondered the people I’d met and the things I’d witnessed.

It was but one page in the chapters of my life thus far, but this page, I savor.

Nash - quarry footprints

A fossil footprint path in the quarry behind Nash Fossil Shop; image taken by the author

———-

Fred Venne made what might have been a good trip to the Beneski Museum one that was an absolutely outstanding adventure.  He is a superb ambassador for Amherst College, and I am profoundly grateful for his thoughtfulness.

A sincere thank you to Dr. Steve Gatesy for his time and his willingness to share details about his current research!

I am indebted to Kornell Nash for letting me explore his fossil quarry alone and for being able to actually touch fossil footprints in-situ.  I am grateful for his willingness to connect with me and share more insight into his father’s communication.

I am sincerely thankful to Amherst College for making the Beneski Museum open to the public (and for free!) It is a marvelous museum, and I encourage all interested to make the trip to see it!

And I remain consistently grateful (and awed) by the generosity of so many paleontologists who have helped me as I learn more about their field. You are all extraordinary!

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?

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

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!

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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]