Eliann Stoffel – Unlocking the Secrets of a Forgotten Mammoth

A rather large bone, revealed by his bulldozer, prompted William McEvoy and his crew to cease work on the road and call the police. The police then called the local archaeological society, who, in turn, called an archaeologist at the local Natural History Museum.

When word got out that a mammoth had been discovered, visitors began pouring in to see the site.  Just a few miles outside of the town of Kyle in Saskatchewan, Canada, the excavation of these fragile bones from the hard clay was witnessed by an ever-growing number of people.  It is estimated that 20,000 visitors came to see the site that autumn in 1964.

 

Eventually, the plaster casts protecting the bones were taken to the Natural History Museum (now known as the Royal Saskatchewan Museum); radiocarbon dating was conducted.  Possible museum displays and skeletal reconstructions were discussed.

And then?

Nothing.

Once the cause of great local excitement, the bones of the Kyle Mammoth faded from view.

The references above to archaeology are not errors.  Although the bones found were paleontological in nature, the focus on the find—and, indeed, the very reason they were recently resurrected—was to determine whether there was any evidence of human-proboscidean interaction.  When no stone tools were recovered in the surrounding sediment and with no obvious signs of butchering on the bones, interest in the fossil seems to have collectively disappeared.  For over 50 years, the various bones found on that stretch of road have been shelved in the Museum’s collections.

“I had always planned on doing my thesis at the University of Saskatchewan and I knew I wanted to do my thesis on hunting and butchering strategies utilized by Paleoindian people,” explained Eliann Stoffel, a recent graduate, in an email.

Her interest was not specific to any one species of megafauna. She hoped to study any and all large animals ancient people may have hunted: camels, bison, horse, proboscidea.

“I had approached my supervisor, Dr. Ernie Walker, with this topic and he had spoken with a member of the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, Frank McDougal, who had suggested taking a look at the Kyle Mammoth.”

Which is how the long-forgotten fossil came back into view in 2015.

“We knew that the mammoth belonged to a time when people were in North America and actively hunting mammoths so we had the possibility of finding some sort of evidence of humans on the Kyle mammoth.”

This evidence is rare in the area known as the Northern Great Plains, an area that encompasses Saskatchewan (as well as another Canadian province and five U.S. states).

“It was one of those projects,” she said later by phone, “that, as soon as it came up, I couldn’t turn it down.  It needed to be done.”

Travelling between Saskatoon and Regina (where the Royal Saskatchewan Museum and the fossil are located), Eliann spent many hours studying and analyzing the bones from the 1964 excavation.  This included five boxes of bone fragments as well as 56 complete or near-complete bones, such as vertebrae, mandible, a partial tusk, and ribs.  Also included were ungulate bones, which—like the mammoth—did not comprise a full skeleton and did not present any clear association with its proboscidean fossil companion.

 

figure-4-1-kyle-mammoth-bones-eliann-stoffel-thesis

About 20% of the mammoth skeleton survived; image courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Eliann’s thesis presents a comprehensive taphonomic analysis of the mammoth bones, and this was done because she and her advisors “knew that we needed to keep in mind that we might not find any evidence of human involvement.”

The idea of determining who or what made any kind of marks on a fossil seems like an overwhelming challenge.  This was not an animal that died the other day.  In this case, it died roughly 12,000 years ago. That is a considerable amount of time in which—after an animal is butchered, killed or otherwise dies of natural causes–it can be scavenged after death, it can be moved and scraped by natural elements, it can be affected by its fossilization, and then possibly affected by the process of discovery (in this case, by a bulldozer). How is anyone able to read the marks on fossil bones and know what they represent?

“[T]he first giveaway is the colour,” she wrote. “Bone, when it has been buried for a long time, tends to become stained from the surrounding sediment but only the outer surface. So when someone (an excavator) knicks the bone, the unstained inner portion of the bone is exposed and tends to be a lighter colour.

“The other indicator can be the clustering of marks. [With] butchering, there tends to be more than one cut mark on the bone in the same general area, usually at muscle attachment sites, and they tend to be orientated in the same direction. Rarely do you find cut marks that intersect each other. They are usually parallel. In accidental knick marks there is usually just the single mark and it tends to be located in a spot that you wouldn’t generally find cut marks (i.e. on joint surfaces or midshaft of a long bone).”

 

figure-b-15-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesis

 

Photo of the Kyle Mammoth right mandible from her thesis; courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Contrary to initial review in the 1960s, Eliann discovered a few tantalizing signs that this mammoth may have, indeed, suffered from trauma induced by ancient humans.  From a suspicious-looking lesion to a possible puncture wound on vertebrae to a puzzling set of lines in a bone fragment, there was reason to wonder whether humans had been responsible for these scars.

Ultimately, however, the first two were determined to be pathological. The lesions conform to known understanding of malnutrition in the form of osteolytic lesions.

Knowing her hope to find evidence of human interaction, I asked if this was a bit of a disappointment.

“[I]t was a bit of a kick in the knees,” she admitted, “but still a super interesting avenue of study in terms of pathology. I am more than thrilled with my findings though!”

 

figure-5-5-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesis

figure-5-1-kyle-mammoth-eliann-stoffel-thesisImages courtesy of Eliann Stoffel, University of Saskatchewan

 

Another startling discovery appeared in what she describes as a “spongy” bone fragment, shown above, which contain traces of blood vessels.

“I remember bringing it to my supervisor and we both scratched our heads over it…So we called on our resident bioarchaeologist Dr. [Angela] Lieverse to take a look and she wasn’t sure but suggested possibly something vascular. Sure enough, when I searched for studies fitting that criteria, a couple articles turned up. So it seems that it is an occurring phenomena but possibly not that common,” Eliann wrote.

Ultimately, Eliann determined that this was a young male woolly mammoth (between 28 – 35 years old) that was still growing at the time of its death.  She estimates it was 328.66 cm (approximately 10.8 feet) tall.  While the large open wound on one of the vertebra points to a possible puncture wound from Clovis weaponry, other pathological features point to a mammoth suffering from malnutrition.

Eliann’s enthusiasm for those who helped her in her research was apparent.

“[T]he folks at the [Royal Saskatchewan M]useum were more than happy to help in any way possible,” she expressed, “and it is something that I have always appreciated! Also my major funders [were] the Saskatchewan Heritage Foundation, the Saskatchewan Archaeological Society, and, of course, the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the [University of Saskatchewan].”

More than just a strenuous academic endeavor, Eliann’s research has painted a picture that has been missing for decades on a significant local paleontological find.

“The [people in the] town of Kyle identify with this mammoth.  As you come into Kyle, there’s this statue of a mammoth.  Their sign that says ‘Welcome to Kyle’ has a picture of a mammoth on it.  It’s clear that they identify with it.”

 

 

A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Eliann Stoffel—not only for her time in emails and by phone–but also for her gracious permission to use a number of pictures from her work!  Her thesis is fascinating and well written.  I recommend it to all!  Eliann, may you find many mammoths with evidence of human association in the future!

Another enormous thank you to Dr. Angela Lieverse, head of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Saskatchewan, who was also responsible for the generous use of images from Eliann’s thesis!

And I am very grateful to Dr. Emily Bamforth at the Royal Saskatchewan Museum for connecting me to Eliann! I could not have written this otherwise. THANK YOU!!

*****

References:

  1. The Kyle Mammoth: An Archaeological, Palaeoecological and Taphonomic Analysis, Eliann W. Stoffel, July 2016, University of Saskatchewan
  2. Shedding Some Light on the Kyle Mammoth, David Zammit, Swift Current Online, Nov. 13, 2016; the article that brought Eliann Stoffel and the Kyle Mammoth to my attention!
  3. PDF about the Kyle Mammoth from the Royal Saskatchewan Museum

Screenshot Kyle Mammoth RSM

Screenshot from the aforementioned PDF of the Kyle Mammoth, Royal Saskatchewan Museum

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Bringing the Extinct Back to Life – Montshire Museum, VT

It’s just over the border of New Hampshire, this sweet jewel of a museum tucked amongst the woods in Norwich, Vermont.

I visited Montshire Museum for the first time last summer to see an exhibit featuring a replica of Sue the T. rex from the Field Museum.  Filled with interactive exhibits, it largely centers on children and families.  Its drawers of fossils and fossil casts, however, kept me eagerly occupied.  And–for the first time in my life–I was able to hold parts of a mammoth molar–one of the many fossils people could touch in a class taught by an engaging docent.

My reason for returning this summer was to see the Prehistoric Menagerie–an outdoor exhibit of sculptures.  Life-sized replicas of extinct creatures that lived during the Cenozoic era created by artist Bob Shannahan.

Thanks to a number of people, I knew there was a woolly mammoth among them.

In order to get to the museum itself, one first has to drive down a long, windy path through the forest.  I mention this because this is what I saw on my drive down:

Montshire - mammoth at distance thru trees

Woolly mammoth sculpture by Bob Shannahan as seen through the trees on the way down into the parking lot of the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author

Knowing that it was a sculpture, rather than a living woolly mammoth, did not make it any less exciting for me.  I immediately got goosebumps.

Quickly, I parked the car, got my ticket, and went straight outside to explore.

Montshire-Woolly-Mammoth-3

Sculpture of woolly mammoth by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; image courtesy of the Montshire Museum

These are no ordinary sculptures.  That’s not actual hair on the mammoth: it’s a shaggy compilation of twigs and other natural plants and fibers.

According to the press release on this exhibit, the artist explained, “Once I choose the animal, I conduct my research, collect skeletal measurements, and make a small model out of wire and foil. Then I make a full-size drawing on cardboard and begin building the animal. The frame, made of steel rebar and aluminum screen, is used to depict the major muscle groups. It turns out that the autumn vegetation is perfect for the animals’ fur.”

Below, for example, is the entelodont–an artiodactyl that lived during the Eocene and Miocene.  You can read more about this animal in this great post by Dr. Darren Naish (TetZoo, Scientific American).

Montshire - enteledont full

Entelodont sculpture at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

Montshire - enteledont detail

Close-up of the entelodont head; notice the plants behind the ear; image taken by the author.

Montshire - enteledont close-up mouth

Close-up of the entelodont mouth; the teeth are made of individual stones; image taken by the author.

Whether one sees them up-close or from a distance, these are impressive replicas.  I marveled at their likenesses, awed that such detail and life could be constructed from plants.

“The vegetation he chooses for each sculpture has connections to that animal’s life,” explained Bob Raiselis, Exhibits Director at the museum, “[H]e’s using the materials of the natural world to create artistic works referencing creatures from that world that we can no longer see.”

Montshire - camel

American camel sculpture at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

Montshire - camel sign

Sign at the museum with details about the sculpture and the plants used to create it; image taken by the author (it was a rainy day when I visited)

“They really do seem to come alive in David Goudy Science Park here at the Montshire,” Bob Raiselis wrote in an email, describing the outdoor area in which the sculptures were placed. “[W]e worked hard to place them in a way that might have made sense for each living creature. The animals in the exhibition wouldn’t all have been in one place at one time in history, but we think that there’s enough space in our outdoor landscape to include the creatures that Bob has created and their own time scales.”

Geologic_time_scale

By United States Geological Survey [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

“At the Montshire we like to point out the connections between what artists do and what scientists do – close observation, looking for connections, creative problem-solving, great use of imagination and visualization – and we’re pleased to have been able to show Bob Shannahan’s work here this summer,” wrote Bob Raiselis. “He’s an artist who has a deep interest in learning about the history of the creatures he models, and then he takes that history, the scientific facts available, and places his works in the context of where and how they lived. And he does it with such skill and sensitivity.”

Montshire - bear favorite

Short-faced bear peering out above a hill at the Montshire Museum; image taken by the author.

Montshire - short-faced bear

Close-up of short-faced bear sculpture by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; courtesy of the Montshire Museum

Montshire - Diatryma

Sculpture of Diatryma, an enormous bird that lived during the Eocene, at the Montshire Museum; the artist employed foam for the beak; image taken by the author.

“It was a long couple of days,” Bob Raiselis continued, “getting them moved onto the Museum grounds, placing them, moving them a bit, looking from different vantage points – but when we were done and that Wooly Mammoth was up on the hill in the middle of Science Park, it really was possible to imagine them living on the North American landscape.”

“It’s a very powerful thing, that kind of realization and engagement with what otherwise might be just a fact you heard somewhere about these creatures.”

————————————

Many thanks to Bob Raiselis and Beth Krusi of the Montshire Museum!

The exhibit is available through September 7th, 2015.

Montshire-Woolly-Mammoth2

Image of woolly mammoth sculpture by Bob Shannahan at the Montshire Museum; image courtesy of the Montshire Museum

Meet Dr. Katy Smith – Mastodon Detective

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

 

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

 

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

 

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

 

ISM - Mammoth tooth

 

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

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

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

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

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

 

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

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

 

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

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

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

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

The questions, however, are profuse.

Why were so many animals found in that one spot?

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

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

And why were other unrelated animals discovered among them?

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

 

 

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

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

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

Katy Smith - measuring an African elephant tusk

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Smith -longitudinally bisected tusk

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Katy Smith - female mastodon

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Smith - male mastodon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

—————

References:

 

Other references:

 

Cohoes mastodon size comparison

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

An Ice Age Wonderland – Yukon Paleontology, Part 3

In 2004, scientists in the Yukon discovered a rare and surprising remnant of the Pleistocene: an Ice Age meadow. And some of the grass, although at least 30,000 years old, was STILL GREEN.

Gold bottom turf_30,000 year old grass below ash

[Fossil grass below layer of tephra at Gold Bottom Creek, part of a 30,000-year-old grassy meadow discovered in 2004, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. To see a picture of some of the green grass, please see page 33.]

 

In Ice Age Klondike, Dr. Grant Zazula and Dr. Duane Froese explain that this layer—at least 40 meters long–was buried by volcanic ash, or ‘tephra’.

 

30,000 year old bed of Dawson tephra

[The layer of tephra is the whitish colored portion toward the bottom; 30,000-year-old tephra, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

Few places in the world offer us such a concentrated wealth of information about the Pleistocene, and the Yukon is one of them.

“There are a lot of common animals like woolly mammoths and bison and horses that we find all the time,” Dr. Zazula said. “But it’s really exciting when we find the bones or the fossils of the rare species, things like camels, or short-faced bears, or lions. Probably for every 500 bones we find, we might find one bone of a carnivore.”

Susan Hewitson in field with lion humerus

[Susan Hewitson holding an Ice Age lion humerus, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

lion mandible

[Ice Age lion mandible, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“I think that one of the things that has really been exciting for me,” he offered, “is that, in the last 10 years, the field of ancient genetics has really taken off in terms of being able to extract DNA from Ice Age bones, then study the details of evolution and how these animals are related to one another.”

beth shapiro with horse jaw 2

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro examines a partial upper jaw bone of a Yukon horse emerging from the frozen mud at Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

fossil horse jaw

[Yukon horse jaw uncovered by placer miners on Quartz Creek near Dawson City, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

“[The Yukon is] one of the best places in the world to do that because of the bones being found in permafrost. [There are] so many Ice Age bones that are being found, and they’re really accessible.

“So we work really closely with the geneticists all the time; we’re working on all kinds of different projects together. It’s nice to be able to collaborate with a field like that and make fossils from the Yukon available for study.”

Geneticist Mathias Stiller - tusk - BonesnBugs.2010.TKuhn_082

[Geneticist Mathias Stiller with tusk found in the muck at Quartz Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

This author writes from an area within the United States that is fossil-poor (finding one mastodon tooth is an enormous deal, and most years pass without a single reported fossil). In comparison, the amount of fossil bones found in the Yukon staggers the imagination. But that is not all that the Yukon has to offer.

Even those not generally interested in paleontology get excited when they see or hear about mummified Ice Age animals. There is something so much more dramatic, that much more intriguing, about seeing an extinct animal in the flesh.

Dr. Zazula was frank about being slightly envious of Siberia’s wealth in that domain. Outside of Blue Babe, a steppe bison carcass found in Alaska, the most spectacular mummified animals have been found on the other side of the world.

And yet, one cannot ignore that mummified remains—partial or otherwise—are also an exciting part of Yukon paleontology.

mummified ferret

[40,000-year-old mummified black-footed ferret discovered by the McDougall family’s dog, Molly, at their placer gold mine on the Sixtymile River, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

One of the more remarkable finds was a partially mummified horse, discovered by Lee Olynyk and Ron Toews in a gold mine.

26,000 year old mummified Yukon horse (Equus lambei) foreleg recovered a....Canadian Museum of Nature

 

[26,000-year-old mummified horse (Equus lambeii) foreleg showing preserved hair, hide and muscle tissue, recovered at Last Chance Creek, Yukon, from Ice Age Mammals of Yukon, courtesy of the Canadian Museum of Nature.]

 

horse tail

[Image of mummified horse tail, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

Internal organs as well as a significant portion of the hide (with mane and hair!) were recovered. One can see this at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre, the museum in the capital city of Whitehorse.

 

Also exciting, but from the neighboring Canadian Territory, was a discovery in the village of Tsiigehtchic. Dr. Zazula participated in uncovering this animal.

“[We excavated] a good portion of a carcass and a skeleton of a steppe bison, which turned out to be about 12,000 years old. There was still a bunch of hair and stomach and intestines and some of the limb bones were still articulated with muscle.”

He wrote about this in more depth with Dr. Beth Shapiro (image above) and several other colleagues in 2009. Not only remarkable for its level of preservation, this was also the first reported mammal soft tissue from the Pleistocene in “the glaciated regions of Northern Canada.

fossil steppe bison skull quartz creek

[Large fossil steppe bison skull found Quartz Creek, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Not the same bison fossil mentioned above.]

Then in 2010, Derek Turner and Brent Ward found the “oldest reliably dated” Western camel fossil found in what was once Eastern Beringia. As mentioned in previous posts, Beringia was the area that covered most of Siberia, Alaska and Yukon when the land was connected in the Pleistocene.

Derek Turner, Brent Ward and Dr. Zazula explain, in their paper about this discovery, that North America was once home to possibly six different species of camel. (There appears to be some dispute about whether six distinctly separate species existed.) And, contrary to what one might expect, Camelops—the camel genus—originated in Central Mexico.

ice age camel metatarsal (foot bone)

[Ice Age camel metatarsal (foot bone), courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

For someone who has never participated in the excavation of either a mummified animal or fossils from permafrost, it was interesting to learn that there is a distinct smell when working with the muck.

Monitoring Dominion Crk (1)

[Placer gold mining monitor, Dominion Creek, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“The only thing that’s kind of similar is the smell of a barnyard. But this is a barnyard from 30,000 years ago, and it’s from mammoths and horses and camels. All this rotten stuff that was [once] animals and plants that died a long, long time ago, frozen in the ground, and it’s now starting to thaw.”

The ever-growing research and discoveries from the Yukon paint a vivid picture of a by-gone era. It is, perhaps, the closest thing to a window into the Ice Age that we have.

When asked if there was anything that had not yet been found that he would be thrilled to find, Dr. Zazula didn’t hesitate: a woolly rhinoceros.

“We know that woolly rhinoceros are, so far, only found in Siberia,” he said, explaining why this would be so significant. “They extended all the way to the Bering Sea essentially, but they seem to never have crossed Beringia into North America. There is no fossil record of Ice Age rhinos here. But if they did [cross Beringia], that would be pretty amazing to find one of their fossils.”

Dinosaur enthusiasts, however, may be disappointed.

“In the Yukon, there’s almost no record of dinosaurs or Mesozoic fossils at all. I’ve been working with colleagues over the past handful of years, trying to find dinosaur deposits. But there’s no record of dinosaurs here except for a few handful of things. So, it’s not really [the place to be] if you’re interested in dinosaur paleontology. And that’s fine for me because then I don’t have to get involved in dinosaur work.”

“The Ice Age,” he continued, “is definitely what I’m interested in.”

Zazula with horse skull selfie

[Paleontologist Grant Zazula with Ice Age horse skull, discovered this past summer, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

Dr. Zazula began grad school in Alberta studying anthropology. Initially, he wanted to become an archaeologist. His undergrad studies focused on Arctic people and research. A strong theme, he explained, centered on the first humans to cross the land bridge into what is now North America.

“I found myself becoming more interested in the environments that those first peoples in North America were encountering,” he mused. “Instead of just trying to study the people themselves, [I wanted to understand] them in more of a wider geographic or environmental context. So, I switched gears during my grad school days from anthropology into biological sciences.”

After doing paleoecological work in the Old Crow region of the Yukon, Dr. Zazula was invited to join a group of researchers working in the Klondike.

“We started doing fieldwork at these gold mines, and we kept on running into these strange balls of hay frozen in the frozen mud, in the Ice Age sediments. And we didn’t really know what they were at first.”

So he contacted Dick Harington—a well-known paleontologist within Canada for his decades of work with fossils and gold miners in the Yukon. Dr. Harington thought they might be Arctic ground squirrel nests, and in further conversation, explained that they had not yet been a topic of study. In other words, not much was known about them.

25,000 year old fossil arctic ground squirrel nest at Quartz Creek, summer 2005 (photo by G. Zazula)

[Fossil nest of an Arctic ground squirrel, 30,000 years old, found at Quartz Creek in summer 2005, from Ice Age Klondike, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Over the first summer of fieldwork, I think I collected almost a hundred of these ground squirrel nests. And what was really cool about it is that the group that I was working with specialized in glacial stratigraphy [and] using volcanic ash beds to date sediments.

“Because they knew the age of these different volcanic ash layers that are found in the sediment, we could actually place these ground squirrel nests in different points in time in the past. We were able to develop sort of a time series of these Arctic ground squirrel nests.

“[Over] the next four years, I picked apart Arctic ground squirrel nests that [dated] between 20,000 and 80,000 years old or so.”

 Nest with squirrel skull

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

These nests are also known as “middens.” In his paper on the topic, Dr. Zazula and his colleagues describe these underground Ice Age homes. What these middens revealed, not just about these specific Ice Age animals, but about the Pleistocene environment at the time, is incredible.

Contained within these middens were ‘caches’ of food—seeds and plants from the area. These tiny plants give scientists a much better understanding of the climate and environment thousands of years ago.

squirrel nest - quartz creek

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

squirrelnest - cache

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, cache highlighted by author, per the paper on this subject.]

 

“I think we’ve identified over 60 different plant species in them, and I wasn’t expecting that at all.”

In addition—and much to this author’s surprise–they found fossil insects, including beetles.

“Fossil Pleistocene beetle remains are actually quite common in sediments,” he said. “And they’re actually pretty useful for climatic reconstructions, because most beetles have a very narrow temperature or climatic envelope that they can live within.”

Squirrel nest - DawsonFieldwork_2011_TKuhn_254

 

[Arctic ground squirrel nest, courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you find the squirrel skull?]

 

[Extant Arctic Ground Squirrel (Spermophilus parryii) hibernating in burrow, Fairbanks, Alaska; Getty Images]

 

In all of Dr. Zazula’s papers, one can see scientists from a variety of fields as co-authors or in the acknowledgements for their help with research. This was reiterated in our phone conversation: he is uniquely positioned as Yukon paleontologist to provide Ice Age material for a wide-range of study to a wide-range of fields.

“Especially with the Pleistocene,” he explained, “there are so many interconnected aspects of research. You need to have a geologist around. And then, in terms of putting the big picture together, you want to have someone that can reconstruct plant fossils. If you’re just doing it alone, you wouldn’t get much of the [big] picture anyway.

“So we’ve really kind of developed this way of doing things as a team.”

Morehouse, Zazula and Stiller

[Archaeologist Jana Morehouse, Paleontologist Grant Zazula and Geneticist Mathias Stiller, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“To me, it’s all so interconnected: the geology, the ecology and the mammals and then the archaeology. You might as well work together to try to accomplish goals, and that’s how we’ve done it. It’s been pretty successful.”

“And,” he added, “it’s a lot more fun that way anyway.”

Beth Shapiro_withHorse

[Geneticist Beth Shapiro with Ice Age horse jaw, image courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

“Prior to the Yukon government establishing the paleontology program, all of the fossils that were being collected went back to Ottawa for the National collection and the National Museum. So most of the material that has ever been collected from the Yukon is actually not here. It’s in Ottawa.

“The Yukon government decided in the mid ‘90’s that they would like to establish its own program in Arctic archaeology and paleontology. Since that time, fossils collected here, stay here. And the position [of Yukon paleontologist] was created to oversee that.”

It’s a position he’s held for the past eight years, and one can hear his genuine enthusiasm for it in his voice.

“It’s a great job,” he stated. “Sometimes I’m shocked that I get paid to do this. It’s pretty exciting.”

Over the years, Dr. Zazula has been featured in some of the most prominent global media. Some of those include NPR, the CBC, the NY Times, and the National Post. This past summer, he was filmed with paleontologist Dick Mol from the Netherlands by a German documentary team. That documentary has been aired in Europe since this past December.

Dick Mol and Grant Zazula - Yukon

[Paleontologists Grant Zazula and Dick Mol, photographed by Florian Breier, the director of the German documentary; image courtesy of Dick Mol.]

Not everyone, regardless of their profession, is as comfortable with media or journalists.

“I think there are a lot of people that stay in labs and put their heads down and don’t really interact with the media, but I think it’s really important,” he said.

[I]t’s one thing that’s never taught: how to conduct interviews or how to take your scientific work and present it or make it relevant to the public. And I think that’s a real problem, because if you are a practicing scientist after graduate school, you’re undoubtedly going to do research that attracts interest, and if you don’t have the ability to speak about it or to present it, you lose a lot of traction. In a lot of regards, science is kind of a big competition. It’s like a big science fair. If you don’t produce results and attract attention, you won’t continue to be funded. You can be an excellent scientist and sort of fade away if you don’t have the ability to attract people’s attention.

“I work for [the] government, where we’re publically funded by tax dollars. [F]or some people, [paleontology] might not seem very relevant for society. Still, I think it’s pretty important whenever we have something new to talk about, in terms of new results or new and interesting things, we should make sure it gets out to the public through media.

“Politicians are the people that decide if these programs continue to be funded. And if they see that there’s a lot of media interest and a lot of people learning because of it, then they’ll definitely keep funding these kinds of programs. And I’m grateful that they continue to do so.”

paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University_bison jaw and mammoth tooth

[Paleoecologist Rolf Mathewes from Simon Fraser University,courtesy of the Government of Yukon. Can you pick out the mammoth tooth?]

Explaining the reasons for his fascination with the Ice Age, Dr. Zazula said, “Dinosaur paleontology doesn’t really tell us much about the modern environment. If we’re interested in what we have today and how it’s changing because of, say, climate change, or environmental change, we’re not going to get much information about environmental processes by studying dinosaurs.

The study of the Ice Age, [however], is how the modern world came to be.

“When you think of tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago, it may seem like a long time ago, [but] it’s just a geological instant. And in that short time period–in that geological instant–the changes that have happened to result in what we have here today are amazing!

“To think of giant elephants and lions running around North America: it’s such a different world. And yet so many aspects of that world can inform us of what we’re dealing with today.”

sixtymile mammoth 1

[Image of mammoth skull found by Hawk Mining along the Sixtymile River, courtesy of the Government of Yukon.]

 

——————–

This trilogy of posts on the Yukon–with all of the beautiful images and the fascinating information they contain–could not have been possible without the generosity of Dr. Grant Zazula.  He is an adept and engaging speaker; the Yukon is incredibly lucky to have him at the helm of the paleontology program!  Once again, and with great sincerity, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to him.

This trilogy would not have occurred without the great generosity and wonderful thoughtfulness of Dick Mol, who is a wonderful, wonderful person.  With great sincerity, I wish him, too, a Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU!

——————–

If you haven’t already checked out these publications by Grant Zazula, Duane Frose and Tyler Kuhn, please do! They are available online:

Other articles referenced:

 

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

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

Terra X – German Documentary: Mammuts – Stars der Eiszeit, http://www.zdf.de/terra-x/mammuts-ikonen-der-eiszeit-35507636.html

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

“Good morning!”

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

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

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

Dr. Zazula and mastodon leg

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cohoes mastodon

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

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

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

ISM - Mammoth tooth

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

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

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

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

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

The path to this remarkable research did not happen overnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bennett mastodon skeleton

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

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

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

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

Jessica Metcalfe with mammoth bone

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper eventually involved a total of 15 people.

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

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

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

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

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

We discussed this further by phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

Dick Mol with horse skull

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

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

Articles and publication referenced:

 

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

 

[REPOST] The Mammoth Site and Dr. Larry Agenbroad – Renowned Paleontologist

Ask Dr. Larry Agenbroad what his most exciting discovery as a paleontologist has been, and his response is: “Too many to select just one.”

He cites, among the top three, discoveries with which you might already be very familiar:

• the most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton found to-date,

• an 11,000 year-old bison kill site,

• and the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia.

These discoveries—like his work—are from all over the world.

Dr.LarryAgenbroad

(Image of Dr. Agenbroad and fossil replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad. If you, like me, thought this was a saber-toothed cat fossil, guess again! See the end of the post for more info*.)

Pygmy mammoths are the smallest of the known species, and their remains have been found on Wrangel Island (off of Russia) and on the Channel Islands (off of California). It is thought that their size evolved from their isolated existence on islands, an environment that would not be able to support multiple Columbian or woolly mammoths.

Dr. Agenbroad led the team that excavated the most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton yet found. A cast of the fossil can be seen at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, and a replica of this fossil in-situ is in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The SBMNH’s website states that Dr. Agenbroad has found 66 more fossil sites on the islands.

Nebraska is home to the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site. Named after Bill Hudson and Albert Meng, who found it by accident in 1954, it eventually produced almost 600 separate bison fossils. These fossils represent a species of bison that does not exist today. Dr. Agenbroad began excavation here in the 1970’s. Different theories exist regarding why so many 11,000 year-old remains of the same species are in one place.

You can see Dr. Agenbroad in the Discovery Channel documentary, “Raising the Mammoth”. It details the discovery and research of the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia. Dr. Agenbroad is among other well-known paleontologists who worked together on this remarkable find: an enormous mammoth encased in ice. That documentary also gives you a peak into the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, where he is the Chief Scientist and Site Director.

Recently accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Mammoth Site houses the largest collection of mammoth fossils in the United States. It is open to the public year-round.

Their website lists that they recently found the 61st mammoth fossil this summer; 58 of which are Columbian mammoths, 3 are woolly mammoths.

Woolly mammoths may dominate mainstream imagination, but the species that lived throughout the U.S. was actually the largest (and possibly the least hairy) representative of that species: the Columbian mammoth.

The Mammoth Site, a growing museum on 8.5 acres of land, is built over the initial excavation area. And that area was originally intended as part of a housing development. Construction came to a halt in 1974 when mammoth fossils were found.

Joe Muller, COO/Business Manager of the museum, describes the initial structure built in 1975 as a modest plywood construction. An addition was made to that structure in 1976 and 1978.

“That [addition] remained over part of the site so people could come in and look a little bit at some of the fossils,” he said in a phone interview.

“[Researchers] would excavate outside (there was a self-imposed hiatus from excavating for 1980-1982 and 1984-1985 until a building could be constructed over the site) until in 1986, the building was built over the sinkhole area. Then in 1990 we enclosed a lobby area with a gift shop.”

Today, there is an additional 4000 square feet of enclosed exhibit space, plus 8,000 square feet for laboratory, bone storage, research library, offices, bathrooms and storage (which opened in May 2001).

And–to give readers an additional sense of the size of the museum space–there is a crane.

“We have a crane in the sinkhole area,” he continued, “so that we can remove the fossils, take them to the ‘mammoth elevator’, and then take them to the basement to the laboratory work on.”

The sinkhole is the reason Hot Springs has such a wealth of fossils. As described both on the museum’s website and in the acclaimed book by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age), the area known as “the sinkhole” was created about 26,000 years ago. It was a 65-foot-deep pond framed by steep banks, with an even deeper section through which flowed warm water. Warm water and vegetation are believed to be the temptations that caused mammoths to venture into the pond. Getting out of that pond—or rather, the inability thereof–is believed to have been the cause of their death.

The many fossils that remain today—mostly young male mammoths—were eventually covered and preserved by mud and sediment over thousands of years. A number of these fossils remain in-situ and available to the public at the Mammoth Site. Excavation within the site continues each year, and it is an opportunity for which one can apply—paleontological background or not. Muller advises that one can apply “to come and excavate for five days with Roads Scholars (May & October), then EarthWatch volunteers come for two two-week sessions; basically the month of July.” Amongst the Ice Age fossils found are camel, llama, prairie dog, a giant short-faced bear, wolf, and numerous invertebrates.

The book Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age lists the surprising fact that mammoth hyoid bones and bile stones have been recovered here.

Dr. Agenbroad explained that “a hyoid bone is a set (5) of bones that support the tongue. Often only one of the set is found.” When asked how something so seemingly small such as a bile stone could be found and identified, he said that is “a non-osteological specimen”, and that they use “chemical analyses to identify them, comparing and contrasting them to modern elephant bile stones.”

Dr. Adrian Lister, one of the authors of the aforementioned book, is listed as one of the former “Visiting Scholars” to the Mammoth Site. Designed and implemented by Dr. Agenbroad, the Visiting Scholar program invites researchers to study at the site.

“I wanted to ‘cross-pollinate’ ideas, methods, and theories with international experts,” wrote Dr. Agenbroad in an email. In response to whether other sites engage in similar activities, he continued, “It is rare for other sites to invite and support a visiting scholar (usually due to budget restrictions).”

The impressive list of “Visiting Scholars” also includes, among others, Adriana Torres of Mexico; Dr. Laura Luzi of Italy; Dr. Daniel Fisher (now of the University of Michigan, one of the many researchers who worked on “Lyuba”, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date, and mammoth-tusk expert); Dick Mol of the Netherlands;  Dr. Evgeny Maschenko, Dr. Alexei Tikhonov and Dr. Gennady Baryshnikov of Russia; Dr. Ralf Kahlke of Germany; and Dr. Jim Burns of Canada.

In terms of tourists, approximately 100,000 people visit the Mammoth Site each year from all over the world.

“Our town is about 3700 people,” Muller said, referring to Hot Springs, SD, “so when we bring in 100,000 visitors a year, it’s a big economic impact for the city.”

From the United States, visitors from Minnesota and Colorado top the list (visitors from South Dakota itself come in third!), but people from as far as South Africa, Korea, and Australia—among so many other foreign countries—also travel to the site.

The Mammoth Site received accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in October of 2013.

“We are in the top 6% of museums in the United States, as only about 5.8% of the estimated 17,500 museums are accredited.”

The accreditation process is apparently a lengthy process, and not every museum is successfully accredited upon their initial application. Policies regarding everything from the artifacts and exhibits (its “collections”) to its financial policies are reviewed and evaluated. The Mammoth Site, Muller stated with well-deserved enthusiasm, “made it the first time!”

“We have a $2.2 million major gift campaign going on now,” Muller continued. “$1.6 million is for a ‘Learning Center’, which includes a couple of theatres and a kind of a gathering area. We are planning a bid letting in August and construction to start in October, with a May 2015 opening date.”

The website offers a “buy-a-brick” program as part of that campaign. It is clear that the growth of this museum is–in no small part–a result of the dedication of everyone who works at and is involved with the Mammoth Site. Muller attributes that to a close-knit community within the museum.

“We’re pretty much like a family, and that’s what the reviewers with American Alliance of Museums said that they were really impressed with: how the staff gets along and works together.”

——————————————————————————

*Dr. Agenbroad is pictured with a short-faced bear replica.

The Mammoth Site: http://www.mammothsite.com/

You can apply to excavate at the Mammoth Site! http://www.mammothsite.com/earthwatch.html OR http://www.mammothsite.com/elderhostel.html

Buy-a-brick to help the Mammoth Site campaign! http://mammothsite.pinnaclecart.com/index.php?p=product&id=1064

Pygmy Mammoth, Channel Islands National Park: http://www.nps.gov/chis/historyculture/pygmymammoth.htm

Pygmy Mammoth, Santa Barbara Natural Museum of History: http://www.sbnature.org/exhibitions/199.html

Latin names of mammoth species mentioned:

Pygmy mammoths = Mammuthus exilis

Woolly mammoths = Mammuthus primigenius

Columbian mammoths = Mammuthus columbi

(Earlier post with Dr. Dan Fisher: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/mammoth-article-qa-dr-daniel-fisher-renowned-paleontologist/)

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Larry Agenbroad and Joe Muller for their time, their generous insight, and their work at the Mammoth Site! An equally large thank you to Presston Gabel, Diana Turner and for all who are involved with the work in that museum!

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.

 


“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

 

The Mammoth Site and Dr. Larry Agenbroad – Renowned Paleontologist

Ask Dr. Larry Agenbroad what his most exciting discovery as a paleontologist has been, and his response is: “Too many to select just one.”

He cites, among the top three, discoveries with which you might already be very familiar:

• the most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton found to-date,

• an 11,000 year-old bison kill site,

• and the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia.

These discoveries—like his work—are from all over the world.

Dr. Larry Agenbroad

(Image of Dr. Agenbroad and fossil replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad. If you, like me, thought this was a saber-toothed cat fossil, guess again! See the end of the post for more info*.)

Pygmy mammoths are the smallest of the known species, and their remains have been found on Wrangel Island (off of Russia) and on the Channel Islands (off of California). It is thought that their size evolved from their isolated existence on islands, an environment that would not be able to support multiple Columbian or woolly mammoths.

Dr. Agenbroad led the team that excavated the most complete pygmy mammoth skeleton yet found. A cast of the fossil can be seen at the Channel Islands National Park Visitor Center, and a replica of this fossil in-situ is in the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. The SBMNH’s website states that Dr. Agenbroad has found 66 more fossil sites on the islands.

Nebraska is home to the Hudson-Meng Bison Kill Site. Named after Bill Hudson and Albert Meng, who found it by accident in 1954, it eventually produced almost 600 separate bison fossils. These fossils represent a species of bison that does not exist today. Dr. Agenbroad began excavation here in the 1970’s. Different theories exist regarding why so many 11,000 year-old remains of the same species are in one place.

You can see Dr. Agenbroad in the Discovery Channel documentary, “Raising the Mammoth”. It details the discovery and research of the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia. Dr. Agenbroad is among other well-known paleontologists who worked together on this remarkable find: an enormous mammoth encased in ice. That documentary also gives you a peak into the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota, where he is the Chief Scientist and Site Director.

Recently accredited by the American Alliance of Museums, the Mammoth Site houses the largest collection of mammoth fossils in the United States. It is open to the public year-round.

Their website lists that they recently found the 61st mammoth fossil this summer; 58 of which are Columbian mammoths, 3 are woolly mammoths.

Woolly mammoths may dominate mainstream imagination, but the species that lived throughout the U.S. was actually the largest (and possibly the least hairy) representative of that species: the Columbian mammoth.

The Mammoth Site, a growing museum on 8.5 acres of land, is built over the initial excavation area. And that area was originally intended as part of a housing development. Construction came to a halt in 1974 when mammoth fossils were found.

Joe Muller, COO/Business Manager of the museum, describes the initial structure built in 1975 as a modest plywood construction. An addition was made to that structure in 1976 and 1978.

“That [addition] remained over part of the site so people could come in and look a little bit at some of the fossils,” he said in a phone interview.

“[Researchers] would excavate outside (there was a self-imposed hiatus from excavating for 1980-1982 and 1984-1985 until a building could be constructed over the site) until in 1986, the building was built over the sinkhole area. Then in 1990 we enclosed a lobby area with a gift shop.”

Today, there is an additional 4000 square feet of enclosed exhibit space, plus 8,000 square feet for laboratory, bone storage, research library, offices, bathrooms and storage (which opened in May 2001).

And–to give readers an additional sense of the size of the museum space–there is a crane.

“We have a crane in the sinkhole area,” he continued, “so that we can remove the fossils, take them to the ‘mammoth elevator’, and then take them to the basement to the laboratory work on.”

The sinkhole is the reason Hot Springs has such a wealth of fossils. As described both on the museum’s website and in the acclaimed book by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn (Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age), the area known as “the sinkhole” was created about 26,000 years ago. It was a 65-foot-deep pond framed by steep banks, with an even deeper section through which flowed warm water. Warm water and vegetation are believed to be the temptations that caused mammoths to venture into the pond. Getting out of that pond—or rather, the inability thereof–is believed to have been the cause of their death.

The many fossils that remain today—mostly young male mammoths—were eventually covered and preserved by mud and sediment over thousands of years. A number of these fossils remain in-situ and available to the public at the Mammoth Site. Excavation within the site continues each year, and it is an opportunity for which one can apply—paleontological background or not. Muller advises that one can apply “to come and excavate for five days with Roads Scholars (May & October), then EarthWatch volunteers come for two two-week sessions; basically the month of July.” Amongst the Ice Age fossils found are camel, llama, prairie dog, a giant short-faced bear, wolf, and numerous invertebrates.

The book Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age lists the surprising fact that mammoth hyoid bones and bile stones have been recovered here.

Dr. Agenbroad explained that “a hyoid bone is a set (5) of bones that support the tongue. Often only one of the set is found.” When asked how something so seemingly small such as a bile stone could be found and identified, he said that is “a non-osteological specimen”, and that they use “chemical analyses to identify them, comparing and contrasting them to modern elephant bile stones.”

Dr. Adrian Lister, one of the authors of the aforementioned book, is listed as one of the former “Visiting Scholars” to the Mammoth Site. Designed and implemented by Dr. Agenbroad, the Visiting Scholar program invites researchers to study at the site.

“I wanted to ‘cross-pollinate’ ideas, methods, and theories with international experts,” wrote Dr. Agenbroad in an email. In response to whether other sites engage in similar activities, he continued, “It is rare for other sites to invite and support a visiting scholar (usually due to budget restrictions).”

The impressive list of “Visiting Scholars” also includes, among others, Adriana Torres of Mexico; Dr. Laura Luzi of Italy; Dr. Daniel Fisher (now of the University of Michigan, one of the many researchers who worked on “Lyuba”, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date, and mammoth-tusk expert); Dick Mol of the Netherlands;  Dr. Evgeny Maschenko, Dr. Alexei Tikhonov and Dr. Gennady Baryshnikov of Russia; Dr. Ralf Kahlke of Germany; and Dr. Jim Burns of Canada.

In terms of tourists, approximately 100,000 people visit the Mammoth Site each year from all over the world.

“Our town is about 3700 people,” Muller said, referring to Hot Springs, SD, “so when we bring in 100,000 visitors a year, it’s a big economic impact for the city.”

From the United States, visitors from Minnesota and Colorado top the list (visitors from South Dakota itself come in third!), but people from as far as South Africa, Korea, and Australia—among so many other foreign countries—also travel to the site.

The Mammoth Site received accreditation by the American Alliance of Museums in October of 2013.

“We are in the top 6% of museums in the United States, as only about 5.8% of the estimated 17,500 museums are accredited.”

The accreditation process is apparently a lengthy process, and not every museum is successfully accredited upon their initial application. Policies regarding everything from the artifacts and exhibits (its “collections”) to its financial policies are reviewed and evaluated. The Mammoth Site, Muller stated with well-deserved enthusiasm, “made it the first time!”

“We have a $2.2 million major gift campaign going on now,” Muller continued. “$1.6 million is for a ‘Learning Center’, which includes a couple of theatres and a kind of a gathering area. We are planning a bid letting in August and construction to start in October, with a May 2015 opening date.”

The website offers a “buy-a-brick” program as part of that campaign. It is clear that the growth of this museum is–in no small part–a result of the dedication of everyone who works at and is involved with the Mammoth Site. Muller attributes that to a close-knit community within the museum.

“We’re pretty much like a family, and that’s what the reviewers with American Alliance of Museums said that they were really impressed with: how the staff gets along and works together.”

——————————————————————————

*Dr. Agenbroad is pictured with a short-faced bear replica.

The Mammoth Site: http://www.mammothsite.com/

You can apply to excavate at the Mammoth Site! http://www.mammothsite.com/earthwatch.html OR http://www.mammothsite.com/elderhostel.html

Buy-a-brick to help the Mammoth Site campaign! http://mammothsite.pinnaclecart.com/index.php?p=product&id=1064

Pygmy Mammoth, Channel Islands National Park: http://www.nps.gov/chis/historyculture/pygmymammoth.htm

Pygmy Mammoth, Santa Barbara Natural Museum of History: http://www.sbnature.org/exhibitions/199.html

Latin names of mammoth species mentioned:

Pygmy mammoths = Mammuthus exilis

Woolly mammoths = Mammuthus primigenius

Columbian mammoths = Mammuthus columbi

(Earlier post with Dr. Dan Fisher: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/mammoth-article-qa-dr-daniel-fisher-renowned-paleontologist/)

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Larry Agenbroad and Joe Muller for their time, their generous insight, and their work at the Mammoth Site! An equally large thank you to Presston Gabel, Diana Turner and for all who are involved with the work in that museum!