North American Proboscideans and Dr. Chris Widga – Part 1

“Most zooarchaeologists are interested in the people, and they use the animals as kind of a tool for understanding butchering patterns or food ways or something like that.”

Dr. Chris Widga and I were in the midst of a great conversation about three recent papers he co-authored, paleontology, proboscideans, and the state of science today.

“I was always interested in the animals themselves,” he continued, “so when I got the position as a vertebrate paleontologist at the [Illinois State Museum], all of my friends who’d known me for years said, ‘well, that was a no-brainer for us. You were doing vertebrate paleontology all the time on Holocene bison. You never cared much about the people!’”

That beginning in zooarchaeology and the subsequent immersion in paleontology are what give him a unique perspective of the two sciences.  Or, as he himself explained: “I guess I kind of have this foot in both worlds.”

The two occasionally overlap.  In the paper published this past February in Boreas, “Late Pleistocene proboscidean population dynamics in the North American Midcontinent,” he and his colleagues take a closer look at what might have caused the extinction of mammoths and mastodons in what is now the middle of North America. Possible culprits include climate change, shifts in available vegetation, and predators (including humans).

Of the 627 localities included in this study, only 3 offer any kind of human association.  The authors state that these sites were “re-visited to ensure consistent taphonomic and zooarchaeological data,” and that, despite this, whether or not these specific humans and proboscideans interacted remains unclear.

“That’s a distinction I like to make as a paleontologist and a zooarchaeologist,” Dr. Widga offered. “Just because we have a couple of the sites with humans associated [doesn’t necessarily indicate that] humans actually hunted, killed and butchered those animals.  [Humans] may have scavenged them.  They may just simply be associated in these sites. And very few of those sites have been analyzed to the degree of detail that we really need to start teasing apart those issues.”

What he and co-authors Stacey N. Lengyel, Jeff Saunders, Gregory Hodgins, J. Douglas Walker, and Alan D. Wanamaker try to do, however, is take a deeper look at the late Pleistocene environment in which these proboscideans lived.  It’s exciting research: Rather than simply describing fossils discovered in the various US states and one Canadian province, they are trying to put them into context.  In other words, they are trying to understand the ecology of that time period and how that may have affected the megafauna living within it.

But it’s not an easy task.

“Ecologists can look at modern ecosystems and say, ‘Ok. This is what’s going on, and this is why we think that, and this is how we’re measuring it’ in great detail.  But extrapolating those same processes back into the paleontological record is often really, really difficult even with the best data set.

For example, “[w]e can observe boom-and-bust cycles in deer populations, in caribou populations, in musk ox and things like that. But when you try and translate that into the paleontological record, most of the time it’s really difficult because you simply don’t have the samples and you don’t have the time resolution.

“Even in our case, where we have really good samples and we have really good dates on our samples and we’re creating this chronological structure to kind of fit them in, it’s really difficult to translate those patterns into ecology.

“We can’t date a single mastodon any more precisely than about a hundred-year window.”

The fact that some of the ecological constructs used today in extant populations are controversial makes trying to apply such constructs to extinct animals that much more of a challenge.

“When even the ecologists can’t truly [agree upon] what’s going on, you have to navigate things very, very carefully.”

The amount of work put into this paper (work that has produced previous, subsequent and yet-to-be-published papers) is staggering.  Thanks to a National Science Foundation grant, Dr. Widga and Dr. Jeff Saunders—both previously at the Illinois State Museum—were able to visit an astounding number of museum collections in the Midwest and review their proboscidean fossils.

“We’ve [basically] spent the last 5 years in other people’s collections,” he explained. “It was fun because we visited a lot of collections that people don’t usually go to. About half of the data set comes from repositories that have fewer than five mammoths and mastodons.”

 

 

An inside look at the extensive fossil collection at the Indiana State Museum collection–one of the many collections visited by Dr. Widga.  In our conversation, he said, “The Indiana State Museum is a big dot on the map in terms of mammoths and mastodons, in part because of [paleobiologist Ron Richards’] work!”   This image was taken in 2005, picturing then Collections Manager Michele Gretna (currently Director of Archaeology); image courtesy Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites.

Another inside look at the Indiana State Museum collection; Preparator Elizabeth Scott after the reconstruction of the Kolarik locality mastodon tusks, 2014; image courtesy Indiana State Museum and Historic Sites

 

 

Their work involved the review of over 1600 fossils that currently reside in collections in Ontario, Canada, as well as in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, Nevada, Ohio, South Dakota and Wisconsin.

“We doubled the number of known published sites for mammoths and mastodons in the Midwest.”

Information that they are willing to share with other scientists, as evidenced by the number of papers they continue to co-author.  Following the Boreas paper, Dr. Widga was part of another two papers published in March in Quaternary International and then in Scientific Reports.

Mammoth teeth take a leading role in the paper, “Reconciling phylogenetic and morphological trends in North American Mammuthus,” published in Quaternary International and co-written with Jeff Saunders and Jacob Enk.

“We’re starting to put out some of these ideas that actually put data onto these [traditional] species boxes that we like to put specimens into.  So that was one of the first steps into thinking about these things: more as morphologically variable populations rather than just trying to assign them to a particular species.

“A lot of times these studies kind of happen in isolation.  So the people that think about morphology, they’ll publish on the morphology and then post-hoc, they’ll say, ‘oh but this doesn’t agree with the genetics at all.’ Or the geneticists will publish on the genetics, but they don’t integrate any morphology.  So our point was to try and integrate both of them and see what they say. Can you use the genetics to kind of structure your interpretations of what the morphology means?”

The authors studied “M3s”—the permanent upper 3rd molar—of both female and male mammoths of various ages from museum collections and from previously published work.

Per Dr. Widga, this is the upper 3rd mammoth molar from Clear Lake Sand and Gravel Pit, Sangamon County, IL. One of his favorites from the ISM collection. It dates to the Last Glacial Maximum and had preserved DNA so is included in the Enk dataset; image and caption courtesy Chris Widga.

 

“Jeff [Saunders] and I would say, ‘this genetic information actually fits perfectly with our morphological information which suggests that there’s a lot of population overlap in between these normally well-defined populations.’ So in between Columbian mammoths in the Great Plains and woolly mammoths from the Great Lakes you have Iowa mammoths that show characteristics of both. And also they show characteristics of both in the same animal!

“That was kind of the impetus for the [Quaternary International paper]: to get that out there, show that you do get a lot of overlap in the morphology. It’s not just clean boxes of Columbian mammoths and woolly mammoths. And even pygmy mammoths overlap with Western Columbian mammoths! So that was kind of the point of the paper: to get the conversation going and make a first pass–a first attempt–to reconcile the two data sets.”

Following soon after the paper in Quaternary International, he was part of a remarkable group of proboscidean and genetic scientists whose paper The evolutionary and phylogeographic history of woolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic analysis analyzed 143 woolly mammoth mitochondrial genomes.

As Dr. Widga said with characteristic enthusiasm about his work in paleontology, “It’s always fun! There’s always a mountain to climb and a vista to see!”

*****

A Mammuthus columbi-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Chris Widga, who was remarkably generous with his time, with images to use and with answering my many, many questions (both for this blog and for my own proboscidean curiosity).  Speaking with him was delightful; he is an incredible ambassador for science in general!

Another sincere THANK YOU to Ron Richards for providing the great images of the Indiana State Museum collection. 

References:

  1. Widga, C., Lengyel, S. N., Saunders, J., Hodgins, G., Walker, J. D. & Wanamaker, A. D.: Late Pleistocene proboscidean population dynamics in the North American Midcontinent. Boreas. 10.1111/bor.12235. ISSN 0300- 9483.
  2. Widga, C., et al., Reconciling phylogenetic and morphological trends in North American Mammuthus, Quaternary International (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.quaint.2017.01.034
  3. Chang, D. et al. The evolutionary and phylogeographic history of woolly mammoths: a comprehensive mitogenomic analysis. Sci. Rep. 7, 44585; doi: 10.1038/srep44585 (2017).

Mastodon fossil at the Illinois State Museum; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 2

 In the previous post, Ronald Richards discussed the current mammoth and mastodon exhibit at the Indiana State Museum. In this post, he described what it is like to excavate fossils in that state.

Ronald Richards’ self-described “obsession” with fossils began when he was ten.

This interest only intensified when—at age 12—he discovered scientific books on the subject. He found his first bone in a cave when he was 16; he published his first paper as an undergraduate.

And when he arrived at the Indiana State Museum, he took an interest in the fossils within its collection that had yet to be studied, publishing a paper of his research. This was when he began to focus on proboscideans: the mammalian group to which mammoths and mastodons belong.

Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons has enabled Ron and his team at the museum to share extensive knowledge of these extinct animals with visitors.

He summarized the three main points of this exhibit about Indiana proboscideans: “They’re everywhere, we’ve dug them, and it’s fun science.”

Ron noted that the fact that people from the State Museum actively excavate fossils is a surprise to many visitors.

“I’d say we’ve salvaged or had a full dig—and most of it’s a full dig—on 16 sites in all different parts of Indiana,” he explained. “Most are northern Indiana. That’s the formerly glaciated area, where the glaciers stagnated. They left behind all these blocks of ice, and they melted. All these former glacial lakes fill up with sediment and mud and plant vegetation and bones of mastodons! And so up north we have a lot more complete skeletons.”

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Image of Bothwell mastodon dig, 2005.]

“There is a lot of science going on. We’re still dealing with site preservation: you know, interpretation, cataloging, trying to get profiles, dates and all that.”

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Close-up of Bothwell mastodon jaw, 2005. Water is sprayed on the fossils to prevent them from drying out.]

Excavating fossils is not an easy process, nor is it something one can plan in advance. Many of the fossils excavated by the museum were found by members of the public, digging for peat moss, for example, or when building a pond on private property.

“My general rule to the landowner is: we’re not going to lay one shovel in the ground until we determine ownership,” Ron said.

“We can’t help a private land owner solve their problem on public funds,” he explained further. “We can do it if we get the skeleton. If we can handle it, we can dig it. We cannot dig it and have them get the skeleton. That would be a misuse of public funds.”

“So, we always have a deed-of-gift before we go in and understand that everything we find—all remains, all samples and this and that—will be donated to the state museum or sold for a certain amount. And we’ve had to do that a couple times. There’s always a written agreement.”

Confusion amongst the general public remains constant about bones found within Indiana. The truth is that, while there are strict rules in place for archaeological artifacts, there are none for those related to paleontology.

“[Archaeological laws are] very tough in Indiana. If a person were to go and systematically try to dig up an archaeological site–even on their own property to recover those artifacts–they are in big trouble,” said Ron. “The conservation officers can move anywhere in the state of Indiana. They don’t even need to have permits. They can come onto your property, and they can investigate.”

Not so with fossils. And as such, if a person finds any on their land, it is within their rights to attempt to sell it.

“We try to get people NOT to sell them on eBay, bone-by-bone, to the highest bidder,” Ron continued, “because it’s part of our heritage. But [fossils are] still not protected by law.”

Remarkably, about 85% of the fossils in the Indiana State Museum were donated.

 ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon humurus

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Notice the orange tint of this mastodon humerus. This color indicates a fresh bone, pictured right after uncovering it. Bones change color from the moment they are excavated. Benedict mastodon, 2008.]

Some might equate digging for fossils with dry, hard rock. But this is not always the case, and certainly not in Indiana.

ISM - 2006 Lewis mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Lewis mastodon dig, 2006.]

Unlike excavations in the drier Western regions of the country, digging in Indiana means one will need to de-water the site. In other words, the appropriate type of pumps are necessary to remove the water, another pit needs to be dug in order to contain that water, a substantial amount of gas needs to be purchased to run those pumps, and volunteer diggers can expect to work in wet and muddy conditions.

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum.]

Ron explained that he will try to encourage a landowner to enable them to dig in the drier months of the year, but it is not always possible.

Describing digs in either April or October, he noted that “you’ve got people in water screens all day with big fire hoses, and they’re soaking wet. That’s not the time to be cold. We’ve screened with icicles hanging off of our raincoats.”

ISM - 2006 Day mastodon dig volunteers

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Here, volunteers skim the surface with their shovels a few inches at a time. Removed soil is screened for small remains. When a large bone is found, excavators stop shoveling and get down on their knees with their trowels. Day mastodon dig, 2006.]

“I don’t enjoy the process,” Ron admitted, referring to organizing and leading a dig site. “Anybody on the dig that doesn’t have to run it, does.”

ISM - 2008 Benedict mastodon spine

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Benedict mastodon spine, 2008.]

“It’s one of the most stressful things you can do. You have to let go what you’re doing if you can, do the dig while all the same deadlines are still backing up at the museum. Everybody needs other things from you, so it’s a highly stressful time usually before we launch [a dig].”

“When we’re there, it’s not bad.”

“But when you get back,” he said, “it’s horrible.” And then chuckled.

“I feel we really do some satisfying things, we do some important things, but I don’t have time to have fun doing it. It’s a rare moment, you know, usually at the end of the dig, [when] I can finally relax, and say, ‘Wow, we did it.’”

“So it’s satisfaction. Great satisfaction. But it doesn’t seem to be a fun thing.”

The number of fossils collected, the new facility in which they are stored at the Indiana State Museum, and the way in which they are preserved impressed neighboring paleontologists Dr. Chris Widga and Dr. Jeffrey Saunders of the Illinois State Museum. They visited as part of a research project regarding proboscideans and extinction within the Midwest.
Dr. Widga outlines that research in his first blog post about it on Backyard Paleo:

“We started a project in 2011 to better understand 1) when mammoths and mastodonts went extinct, and 2) the ecological mechanisms that might have played a major role in how they went extinct. The major foundation of this project is a museum-by-museum survey of mammoths and mastodonts in collections from nine states and one province (MN, WI, IA, MO, IL, IN, OH, KY, MI, and ON). Over the last 2.5 years, we’ve documented mammoths and mastodonts from 576 localities.”

Dr. Widga and Dr. Saunders anticipated a relatively short visit, but the depth of the Indiana collection caused them to stay longer.

“We’re not really driving a lot of research,” explained Ron of the Indiana State Museum, “but we’re driving some of the best collections.”

ISM - Anderson mastodon skull front

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139C 71.3.226 Anderson A]

“I really just have to do the best job with discovery and preservation in Indiana and get general site reports out, with dates and all that, so we can really document it,” he said. “Basically it’s like a crime lab! You have the crime, and you have to gather all the evidence you’re going to need. They didn’t know 50 years ago that they needed to save samples for DNA, you see? But I know that.”

He alluded to possible future scientific improvements in paleontology, and how the samples he preserves now might be able to help new generations of scientists learn more.

ISM - Anderson mastodon

[Image courtesy of Indiana State Museum. Ob-139D 71.3.226 Anderson B]

“So my focus is doing a good job, with documenting and preserving and interpreting, what we’ve found in Indiana.”

“And the bigger high-level stuff,” he concluded, “that’s for the people like Dan Fisher.”

—————

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

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

You can read more about Dr. Widga’s and Dr. Saunder’s project here: http://backyardpaleo.wordpress.com/2014/02/01/midwestern-mammoths-and-mastodonts-the-m-cubed-project/

Once again, a Mammuthus-Columbi-sized THANK YOU to Ron Richards.  His generosity, his time, and his enthusiasm were wonderful. What a great honor and pleasure speaking with him!