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.

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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

 

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Dick Mol – Renowned Mammoth Expert: Fossil Hunting in the Sea

‘Fossil-hunting’ often brings to mind remote locations filled with rocks, sparse vegetation and a bright, merciless sun.

But Dick Mol–an internationally renowned paleontologist–is part of a team that regularly uncovers fossils in an unusual place: the ocean.

Dick MolDick Mol holding Ice Age bison skull found in the North Sea, image courtesy of Rene Bleuanus and Dick Mol

 His expeditions take place upon the North Sea, a large expanse of ocean between the East coast of the United Kingdom and the coasts of several other European countries such as the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany up through to Norway.

 

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“The North Sea is very rich,” wrote Dick Mol in an email. “Ever since 1874, fishermen have brought large quantities of bones and molars ashore.”

He himself has written articles about these finds, describing how the area is routinely dredged, enabling large ships passage on this navigational route. This dredging is what helps uncover fossils deposited there so many thousands of years ago. Coupled with trawling—a method of fishing that pulls weighted nets along the sea floor—these fossils are then brought to the surface.

“I learned about the Ice Age mammal remains, trawled by fishermen,” he explained, “from the curator of the Geological and Mineralogical Museum in Leiden, now the NCB Naturalis (Netherlands Center for Biodiversity). At that time, the attic of the museum was full of large bones of trawled mammoth bones, skulls and lower jaws. It was very impressive.”

Trawling boat, Stellendam harborFisherman preparing trawling nets as the ship leaves Stellendam harbor for the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“I remember,” he continued, “that in November 1992 I brought the late Dr. Andrei Sher, a renowned mammoth expert from Moscow, to the museum. When he entered the large attic, he didn’t believe what he was seeing: perhaps one of the largest collections of isolated mammoth bones in the world. This was recorded by a film crew making a documentary on mammoths in the Netherlands. Once in a while, I rewatch this brief documentary again, and it gives me very good memories of a longtime ago.”

“When he entered the large attic, he didn’t believe what he was seeing: perhaps one of the largest collections of isolated mammoth bones in the world.” — Dick Mol, describing the reaction of Dr. Andrei Sher to a collection of mammoth fossils from the North Sea at the NCB Naturalis in the Netherlands

Known to the world as Dick Mol, his name is actually Dirk Jan Mol, and he has been researching mammoths and other Pleistocene fauna for decades. One cannot study mammoths without becoming acquainted with his name and his work.

In response to what prompted his career in mammoths, he wrote, “I grew up on the border with Germany. Around the town of Winterswijk a lot of different geological sediments and fossils can be found from the Triassic, Cretaceous, Oligocene, Miocene, Pliocene and Holocene eras. In different quarries and clay-pits you could collect fossils, but none were of mammoths or remains of other Ice Age creatures.”

“I have been, since 1968, fascinated by mammoths. In the literature, you could read that these prehistoric animals stood up to 5 meters at shoulder (which was exaggerated, of course). I wanted to know more about mammoths and their ancestors. I wanted to find my own mammoths, but it seems that the mammoth has found me!”

“I wanted to find my own mammoths, but it seems that the mammoth has found me!” — Dick Mol

His enthusiasm for the topic has lead him to become a visiting scientist in 1990 and 1994 at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota—part of the “Visiting Scholar” program designed by Dr. Larry Agenbroad. He has co-authored numerous papers over the years, and his books include Mammoths (published 1993) and, more recently, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Haute-Loire (published 2010), a bilingual book he co-authored with French paleontologist, Frédéric Lacombat.

Scientists and explorers from all over the world have invited him to help excavate their discoveries: some of the most notable finds include the Jarkov woolly mammoth in Russia (Mammuthus primigenius), the Nolhac steppe mammoth in France (Mammuthus trogontherii), and parts of a mastodon skeleton in Greece (Mammut borsoni), in which the longest tusks found to-date were uncovered (502 cm in length).

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands knighted him for his work in paleontology in 2000. In addition, he is President of Mammuthus Club International and has been involved in the international conference related to mammoth research for years.

His family’s personal collection of fossils exceeds 30,000 specimens that have been used for educational purposes and scientific studies.

Today, he is a Research Associate at the following institutions:

For all of his accolades and accomplishments, Dick Mol is a very accessible and kind man. One witnesses his infectious enthusiasm in these two videos about his work in the North Sea:

 

Trawling for Mammoths: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q0gfr

A Mammoth Task: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01q29mg

 

“Over the years, tons and tons of bones have been trawled by fishermen in their nets,” he reiterated. “Between 1997 and 2003, we weighed the mammoth bones: 57 tons, not including 8000 mammoth molars (!) of woolly mammoths. The southern bight of the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands is very rich in Pleistocene mammal remains. It is a real treasure trove.”

“Between 1997 and 2003, we weighed the mammoth bones: 57 tons, not including 8000 mammoth molars (!) of woolly mammoths. The southern bight of the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands is very rich in Pleistocene mammal remains. It is a real treasure trove.”–Dick Mol

“In the meantime, I have organized 43 mammoth fishing expeditions on the North Sea using big beam trawlers. Quite spectacular and always a good catch. Doing these expeditions gave us very good insight into those areas that are very productive and those areas in which Pleistocene fossils are scarce.”

Given the enormous number of fossils brought up from dredging, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to wonder whether there might be exciting fossil discoveries just waiting to be found if one could go even deeper.

“Yes, for sure,” he agreed. “Most of the bones trawled by the fishermen have been washed out of the seabed by currents. The Eurogully area, off the coast of the province of South-Holland, was dredged from 13 to 40 meters below sea level. At approximately 23-26 meters, there is a rich layer with bones and teeth from the Late Pleistocene. Deeper, there is a layer containing an interglacial fauna (110.000-130.000 BP) including Hippopotamusses and straight-tusked elephants. This is true for the entire southern bight of the North Sea.”

Private collector with femur of the so-called straight-tusked elepahnt, North Sea

Private collector with the femur of the so-called straight-tusked elephant from the North Sea,image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

But the cost of such an underwater excavation might be prohibitive.

“Once, I used a diver on one of the expeditions. Visibility was very poor, and it was not successful. But some divers in the past have found some mammoth remains. Amongst others, a diver brought up a complete mammoth tusk.”

Aside from the need to desalinate fossils found in the North Sea, they are not physically treated any differently than fossils one finds on land. And despite the wealth of fossils found thus far, Dick Mol does not have any favorites.

“For me,” he wrote, “every bone, bone fragment or remnant is unique and tells us a story….”

Mammoth tibia, freshly trawled, with fish... (1)

Mammoth tibia freshly trawled from the North Sea with fish, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

Keep in mind, however, that these fragments and bones are not found together.

Paleontology is like detective work: terrestrial excavations include mapping by grid, pictures, and notes related to where each bone is found. All of these details help paleontologists better understand what species it is and what happened to that animal before and after it died.

The bones found in the North Sea are pulled up individually in a mass of fish and other debris.

Without any of the clues available to someone digging on land, this begs the question: can one determine to which species a bone belongs in isolation?

“[A]fter spending more than 40 years of my life identifying isolated skeletal elements (we have never retrieved a complete skeleton from the North Sea bed) again and again, using comparative collections, it is possible to identify the specimens as soon as they are on the deck of the vessel.”

“Sometimes,” he added, “I need to use literature, but in most cases, an experienced anatomist can do it right away.”

And what about the isolated teeth that have been found in abundance?

“[A]t least three different species of mammoths are well-documented: from the Early Pleistocene the southern mammoth, (Mammuthus meridionalis); from the Middle Pleistocene the steppe mammoth, (Mammuthus trogontherii); and from the Late Pleistocene the woolly mammoth, the icon of the Ice Age, (Mammuthus primigenius). The molars of these species are quite different and easy to tell apart from each other by an experienced specialist.”

Grooves and marks upon the bones give rise to questions about who or what caused them: humans or other Pleistocene animals? And how can one tell the difference?

“Hyena gnawing marks and other predators are well-known and, in general, easy to recognize. Of course, you need some training and experience. Sometimes, especially in large bones, one can see the deep grooves in the so-called material spongiosa caused by hyena (pre)molars. Hyena gnawing marks are very often found in the skeletal remains of woolly mammoths and woolly rhinoceroses. The ice-aged hyena was very common on the Late Pleistocene mammoth steppe environment. Cut marks caused by human activity are completely different from those of predators.”

The “quality and quantity” of the fossils in the North Sea are two things that surprise him the most.

“We have huge collections, and we are constantly learning from them.”

Storage private collection Urk (1)

Private fossil collection storage, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol (Dick Mol is pictured on the left)

Highlighting mammoth teeth

Please click on this (or any) image to see it in more detail, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol; highlighting by author

“Recently, many collectors are also focusing on small mammal remains (micro-mammals like voles and lemmings). These remains can be found on the beaches of the North Sea where Pleistocene sediments have been added to strengthen the coastline. Some collectors have hundreds and hundreds of small molars of the entire small mammal fauna. These small mammal remains provide very interesting data to complete the picture of the woolly mammoth and its Ice Age world. In other words, it gives us a window into the small animal community that coexisted with the megafauna.”

“These small mammal remains provide very interesting data to complete the picture of the woolly mammoth and its Ice Age world. In other words, it gives us a window into the small animal community that coexisted with the megafauna.”–Dick Mol

There are two questions that come to mind regarding the volume of fossils collected so far: where are these fossils stored and how long does it take to catalog and study such collections?

“It is a continuous process,” he stated, referring to the length of time needed to catalog and study the fossils.

But in terms of where they are stored, he wrote, “[t]he NCB Naturalis (Netherlands Center of Biodiversity Naturalis in Leiden) has a huge collection of fossil bones from both the North Sea, as well as from dredging operations in the floodplain of our rivers like Rhine, Meuse and IJssel. Really, a huge collection.”

“Using about 200 skeletal elements of mammoths of almost the same size, same age and same gender, we compiled a skeleton for museum display, a huge male individual. Another extensive collection is housed at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam. Here, a huge collection of Pliocene and Pleistocene marine mammals is stored. Most of these marine mammal remains have been trawled from the seabed as well, and some of these animals coexisted together with terrestrial mammals like mammoths and other large animals. The marine mammals were living in the paleodeltas.”

Compilation skeleton woolly mammoth, NCB Naturalis Leiden (1)

 

Woolly mammoth skeleton at the NCB Naturalis Leiden Museum, the Netherlands, composed of individual fossils found within the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“And there are some private collections. Some of them are very well documented. They are like professional collections, and they are available and often used for scientific studies.”

“The co-operation between non-professional and professional paleontologists is extremely good in the Netherlands. For more than three decades, both groups have been working closely together on mammoths and mammoth fauna, scoring very interesting results like 14C, stabile isotopes, new species, etc.”

Dick Mol himself posed the final question: “What can we learn from the mammoth bones trawled from the North Sea between the British Islands and the Netherlands?

“The rich terrestrial mammal remains trawled teach us that the North Sea between Britain and the Netherlands was once dry land,” he explained. “The British Islands were connected with the mainland of Europe during the entire Pleistocene or Ice Age (2.580.000 – 11.500 BP). That area was inhabited by different faunas.”

“In the Early Pleistocene, it was a savannah-like environment, dominated by the southern or ancestral mammoths, (Mammuthus meridionalis). In the Middle Pleistocene, it was a steppe-like environment dominated by the steppe mammoth, (Mammuthus trogontherii), and in the Late Pleistocene, it was a cold, dry and almost treeless steppe dominated by woolly mammoths, (Mammuthus primigenius).”

Dick Mol - compilation skeleton

Woolly mammoth skeleton at the Hellevoetsluis Museum, the Netherlands, composed of individual fossils found within the North Sea, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

“At the end of the Pleistocene, this landscape disappeared, caused by dramatic change of climate. It became warmer and warmer, and ice–which blanketed the northern hemisphere–started to melt. Melted water filled up lower countries, and the vast plain became ocean. We know this area today as the ‘North Sea’, and it reached its present sea level about 8,000 years ago. The mammoth steppe disappeared and the mammoth fauna became extinct. This extinction is what we need to accept; it is not dramatic.”

“These events—of which we can learn from the North Sea fossils–show us that we are on a living planet and extinction belongs to it.”
————-

A Mammuthus trogontherii-sized THANK YOU to Dick Mol for his generous and detailed answers to my many, many questions; for his time, his wisdom and his thoughtfulness! What a truly great honor and a great pleasure!!

Dick Mol

 

Dick Mol, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

Dick Mol’s papers and research: http://hetnatuurhistorisch.academia.edu/DickMol

The Eurogeul—first report of the palaeontological, palynological and archaeological investigations of this part of the North Sea:  http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1040618205000649

For fascinating pictures and in-depth descriptions of mastodons and mammoths, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Haute-Loire is a great book (published 2010, in English and in French):  http://www.amazon.fr/Mammouths-Mastodontes-Haute-Loire-Dick-Mol/dp/2911794974/

If you are interested in seeing more of Hans Wildschut’s exciting work, here are links provided by Dick Mol:

Trawling and fossils:

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils

Hans Wildschut – fossil finds

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils, December 2010

Hans Wildschut – exciting fossil finds and collection (Urk)

Remie Bakker and the creation of the life-sized model of the Mastodon of Auvergne:

Hans Wildschut – Remie Bakker’s work

 

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1

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

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

 

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

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

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

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

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

ISM - Title Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Mammoth tooth

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

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

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

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

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

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

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

ISM - Hebior mammoth

ISM - Fred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Ron Richards, Dan and Janne Buesching

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

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

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

ISM - Fred installation 1

ISM - Fred installation 2

[Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum, installing Fred]

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Beautiful Fred

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

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

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

ISM - Hall of Giants

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Mammoth and spear

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Map of mammoths and mastodons

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

That number is extraordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Elephants

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

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

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

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

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

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 *Initial image in the blog post is of mastodons.

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

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

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

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

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