Science in a Troubling Political Climate – Dr. Chris Widga – Part 2

New Hampshire doesn’t have a state museum.  I never realized there were such things until someone I interviewed mentioned a mastodon fossil in Albany, which prompted me to travel to the NY State Museum soon after to see it.

Not understanding what a state museum is, it shocked me that there was no admission fee; anyone from anywhere could visit the museum at no cost.  I marveled then—as I marvel still—that such places exist. (To be clear: not all state museums are free.)

The Cohoes Mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, NY; picture taken by the author of this blog.  I learned of this mastodon thanks to Dartmouth professor, Dr. Roger Sloboda, after interviewing him for a piece I was writing about a mammoth & mastodon exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science in 2012.

 

 

Illinois not only has a state museum, that museum is made up of five separate museums with over 13 million artifacts.  And in 2015, Governor Bruce Rauner wanted to close it completely.

During a messy and contentious budget battle, the museum was shuttered for nine months, only to be reopened this past July with a new $5 admission fee.  But by then, most of the staff had gone, forced to take jobs in other places as their future at the museum was decidedly uncertain.

 

Screenshot from this page of the Illinois State Museum website.

 

No one knows this better than Dr. Chris Widga, who had been a vertebrate paleontologist employed at the Illinois State Museum.  He now works at the Center for Excellence in Paleontology at East Tennessee State University (ETSU).

“The whole question of Channel Islands and island mammoths probably got me through last winter,” Dr. Widga explained as we spoke by phone.

We were discussing the effect islands had on proboscidean evolution and the exciting recent research done in part by researchers from The Mammoth Site and the National Park Service.

“In Illinois, as the State government was falling apart around my ears, as the State Museum was closed, I basically closed my door and was doing the analysis for the Quaternary International article. In so doing, I was thinking about these pygmy mammoths. As it’s icy outside and subzero for about six weeks at a time, that kept my sanity.” He laughed.  “So the Channel Islands has been my refuge, I guess, even though I’ve never actually been out on one of them.”

The move from Illinois to Tennessee was not just a contrast in physical environments.  It also meant moving from a scientific institution founded in 1855 to one that has been open for just 10 years.  Dr. Widga explained that a mere two weeks prior to his start date at ETSU, the university formed a partnership with a local science center.   The ETSU staff maintains the collections, conducts research, and oversees excavations at the nearby Gray Fossil Site.  The science center staff is responsible for educational activities within the museum and overall maintenance.

“Their [educational] philosophy is very similar to ours,” Dr. Widga said of the science center. “It’s inquiry-based. We want people to come in and learn through asking questions rather than just be spoon-fed facts.”

So much of what Dr. Widga has done involves public outreach.  From videos about the collections at the Illinois State Museum to long-distance learning programs like The Mammoth Expedition, work he did in conjunction with Dr. Katy Smith at Georgia Southern University and with the Milwaukee Public Museum.

When I commented on how much I loved that kind of publicly accessible information, his response was, “Part of that is because I’m in a museum. I’m not buried under coursework and teaching. Outreach is valued. The way you justify your existence in a museum is to connect with the public.  And part of that is figuring out how we can connect with the public in ways where it’s an exponential relationship.”

In other words, not having a one-on-one conversation with a museum visitor, but creating a website about the Ice Age in the Midwest, for example.

Figure from a presentation done by Dr. Chris Widga as part of the National Science Foundation grant received; image courtesy of Chris Widga.

 

Despite everything he’s gone through, there is no question Dr. Widga loves what he does.  It permeates his voice when he speaks of paleontology, and it prompted me to ask if he ever becomes excited at work.  His response was a definitive ‘YES.’

By way of explanation, he quoted his now-retired colleague, Dr. Jeff Saunders, who used to say, “‘Going to work in the morning was like going to Disney Land everyday.’”

Not only did the two scientists literally work across the hall from each other at the Illinois State Museum, they were apparently known to shout out excitedly to the other whenever one read a great article or wanted to share a relevant scientific image.

“Part of the reason I like museums is because you just never know!” Dr. Widga continued. “Some of the new things come from the collections; some of the new things come from new papers. You read them and you’re like, ‘oh, this explains it!’ It was something that you had been working on for a long time and, all of a sudden, somebody else had that last piece of the puzzle that puts the whole thing together.

“At least once a day—even on the worst days—there’s something that comes through and I’m like, ‘oh, this is so cool!’”

Proboscideans at Morrill Hall at the University of Nebraska State Museum of Natural History; image courtesy of Chris Widga

 

The seemingly idyllic work environment in Illinois lasted for a decade until 2015. Despite protests, a MoveOn.org petition and public outcry about the museum closing, Dr. Widga and his colleagues were forced to consider other options.  The fate of the museum was out of their hands.

“There was a point as I started looking for jobs last year that I asked myself, you know, do I want to continue in this vein?”

“I’d watched many of [my colleagues] that had taken jobs in Research One institutions [become] totally burned out.  Or they’d kind of gone in weird and funky directions, not because the research was taking them in that direction, but because they were getting pressure from their institution to go in a certain direction or something like that.

“And that was part of the fun of the Illinois State Museum is that I could work on anything. Nobody was saying, ‘You have to work on elephants.’ That was a choice that was mine. Nobody was saying, ‘well, you have to work on dogs.’ That was a choice that was mine. You could chase whatever questions were out there.

“The feedback that I got from the people that interviewed me [was that] they were very interested in what I did.  It was a very different situation than what we were going through at the Illinois State Museum where, essentially, you were being told, ‘what you do is not important.  And none of what you do—your position, your entire existence—is important.’ [The feedback I got while interviewing for other jobs] revived this idea that what we do is important, and it’s exciting.”

I couldn’t help but compare his experience in Illinois to the general anti-science climate in our government today.  It was particularly interesting for me to speak with Dr. Widga about his paper on Pleistocene ecology a day or so after the House Science Committee’s so-called hearing on climate change.  Dr. Widga’s infectious enthusiasm took a very somber turn, as he conceded how difficult things become when “politics starts really driving the boat and reason takes a back seat.”

“That won’t change any of the science,” he added, “[but] it may change how the science is funded. It also won’t change any outreach that we do or the educational activities! In fact, if anything, it’s going to make those seem more important and put more emphasis on those.

“We can talk about the scientific community writ-large, but certainly within the paleontological community, you will find very few working paleontologists, working scientists, who say that education and outreach is not a good thing anymore.

“It used to be that you could just hole-up and do your research and never really interact with the public.  But if anything, this whole process [with the IL governor and the Illinois State Museum] has made us realize that that can’t happen.

“There’s this realization that pre-dates this modern political atmosphere: That you really do need to work with the public and you need to make sure that the point of what you’re doing is out there. Not just in terms of dinosaurs are always cool so therefore that’s why we’re doing it. But we’re also doing it to learn more about how our world works–the nuts-and-bolts of how ecosystems are put together, the nuts-and-bolts of how climate changes impact those ecosystems–that has real-life implications for today and into the future.

“And there’ve been some really loud voices in the last couple of years that have said that over and over and over again. Some of which are people like Jacquelyn Gill! And that is a big shift in science. It’s a big shift in science communications.

“I’m glad that we were moving on that before the current [political] atmosphere because it makes it much more difficult to sideline us as, you know, a bunch of eggheads.”

It didn’t take long for our conversation to take a positive swing upward, as Dr. Widga then described possible future projects involving scientists across the country.

His statement “I’ve always been of the opinion that science is a collaborative effort” couldn’t be more apt.  And I, for one, cannot wait to see what he and his colleagues work on next.

Artwork by Velizar Simeonovski based on scientific research at Mastodon Lake in Aurora, IL; courtesy of Chris Widga

*****

THANK YOU, Dr. Chris Widga, for your generosity of time and spirit in speaking with me about paleontology and the difficulty you’ve gone through.  I loved conversing with you, and I’m eager to read about, watch or see the projects you dive into next!

 

References:

  1. Illinois State Museum reopens to public after nine-month shutdown, John Reynolds, The State Journal-Register, July 2, 2016
  2. Closing decimates Illinois State Museum management, Chris Dettro, The State Journal-Register, December 27, 2015
  3. Much of Illinois State Museum management leaves amid closure, Chicago-Tribune, December 28, 2015
  4. Museums caught in middle of state budget showdown, Steve Johnson, Chicago-Tribune, June 25, 2015
  5. Rainer prepares to close state museums, shutter some prisons to balance ‘phony’ Democratic budget, Becky Schlikerman, Chicago Sun-Times, June 24, 2015
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Meet Dr. Katy Smith – Mastodon Detective

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

 

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

 

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

 

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

 

ISM - Mammoth tooth

 

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

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

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

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

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

 

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

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

 

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

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

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

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

The questions, however, are profuse.

Why were so many animals found in that one spot?

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

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

And why were other unrelated animals discovered among them?

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

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

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

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

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

Katy Smith - measuring an African elephant tusk

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Smith -longitudinally bisected tusk

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Katy Smith - female mastodon

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Smith - male mastodon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

—————

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]

NH State Fossil? – Part 1: Interview with Thom Smith

In the Fall of 2013, Thom Smith and his 3rd grade class in Bradford, NH began their quest to create a State Fossil.  After much research and consultation with local paleontologists, Mammut americanum (a type of mastodon that most likely resided in NH) became their fossil of choice.  They were finally able to present their testimony to a committee within the NH House of Representatives this past February.

The story does not end well.

And it is a story that did not get as much attention as another proposal for a State Raptor proposed by 4th graders from a different NH town.

Rather than begin the story with my version of events, I wanted to let Thom Smith and these marvelous students speak for themselves.

Below is the initial Q&A exchanged between Thom Smith and me this past January.

NHSF - Class

[image of Thom Smith with his students and Rep. David Borden, the first NH legislator to take an interest in the bill, courtesy of Thom Smith]

1. How do you discuss fossils with your students?

Thom Smith: Instruction of fossils is centered on the idea that discovering fossils is equivalent to discovering clues about our past and our planet’s past.  Fossils are clues that help us look into the lives of ancient animals and plants.  Students become excited when they discover that paleontology is not just digging up old things, but about being a detective looking for clues that will help tell us the history of our backyard’s past.  We delve further into fossils by learning about the four main types of fossils, as well as by participating in a “mock” paleontology dig on our school’s fitness and nature trail. 

2. How did you (or do you) learn about fossils/paleontology?

Thom Smith: I initially learned about paleontology in elementary school as well.  To be honest I do not remember any further education in paleontology beyond that point – except perhaps teachers occasionally touching upon paleontology matters in other science classes.  I currently learn about fossils by reading up on any current event article that comes to light in the news, or by reading about recent discoveries in magazines or online. 

3. What was it about this class that inspired you to try to have a state fossil created in NH?

Thom Smith: It was a shared inspiration, and honestly, it was my students that originally came up with the idea.  When studying fossils my students often discover through readings and research of their own that New Hampshire does not have a state fossil.  This past year was no different, and when they became discouraged at that fact I asked them if they wanted to try and do something about it.  We had just been involved on a unit of study on citizenship, and I thought it might be a good opportunity for them to see what speaking up for their concerns as citizens might do.  As a third grade teacher, I also get the privilege of instructing our students on the New Hampshire state “officials”.  Every year students become greatly interested in learning about the ladybug, the Karner Blue butterfly and the purple finch.  I also encouraged my students to try to have a state fossil declared in New Hampshire because I knew it would help increase student interest in paleontology and the importance of learning about our state’s ancient past if a bill was to become law. 

4.  Have you had any experience with legislation before? (How have you found the process so far?)

Thom Smith: I have not had any experience with legislation before, yet the process so far has been very educational and encouraging.  Representative David Borden, who was the first state representative to offer our class his assistance, has been incredible.  He is a kind, sincere individual who really cares about our state’s youth and education.  He has gone to great lengths to encourage and educate our school’s students about state legislation, and has done so with a humble and generous attitude.  He understands that this quest for a state fossil is not just because some students in a small town in New Hampshire want one, but because these students who wish to have a voice have good reasons for their request and need supportive adults to help them.  The process of legislation takes a lot of time, but I think it is understandably so, at least in this circumstance.

 

5. The Concord Monitor article indicates that you connected with Dr. Gary Johnson at Dartmouth and Dr. Will Clyde at UNH. What prompted you to connect with these two people? What have you learned from them?

Thom Smith: The class initially needed advice on discerning which fossil they believed would be the best fossil to represent our state.  I connected with Dr. Will Clyde at UNH because the class watched a news clip on WMUR that featured Dr. Clyde providing his expertise.  I connected with Dr. Johnson because I searched online for other experts on fossils from New Hampshire and discovered that his sedimentary geology field of study led him to the discovery of fossilized dinosaur footprints.  Both professors were immediately helpful and encouraging.  We learned that New Hampshire is not a good state in searching for fossils because of its granite make-up, but that fossils have been found in NH, including brachiopods, mammoth and mastodon fossils.  The mammoth and mastodon fossils had been found more recently, including by fishermen off the coast of Rye.  We more recently learned of support for our classes’ request from Professor of Geology Wallace Bothner at UNH as well.

6. Did your students think anything other than a mastodon should be the state fossil?

Thom Smith:  I found the decision to determine what fossil should be our state fossil another good lesson in citizenship responsibilities. Our class made a chart with brachiopods, mammoths and mastodons, and in each column we wrote down facts about each fossil and how it related to our state.  We discussed the possible “candidates” for a couple of class sessions then held a big vote.  The mastodon won unanimously for a variety of reasons – ones we outlined in a letter that we sent to state representatives asking for support.  Those reasons included:

  • This fossil was found recently off the coast of New Hampshire
  • This fossil is an official state fossil in only one other state
  • Two well-respected paleontologists from New Hampshire suggested it as a possible official state fossil
  • This fossil connects our state’s present (New Hampshire’s fishing industry) to our state’s past
  • This fossil is a piece of our state’s ancient history that we should recognize, and as an official state fossil has the potential to encourage others to learn about our state’s ancient past
  • Our surrounding states have state fossils but New Hampshire does not

 7. Do they understand what a mastodon is?

Thom Smith: My students understand that the mastodon is an extinct, shaggy-haired elephant-type creature, similar to the mammoth except often smaller, and with shorter legs and flatter heads.

Cohoes mastodon

[image of Cohoes mastodon at the NY State Museum in Albany, picture by the author]

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

[painting of mastodons from an exhibit at the Indiana State Museum, courtesy of the Indiana State Museum for this post]

8.  Have they seen the mammoth tooth at the Rye Public Library?

Thom Smith: We have yet to see the mastodon tooth (as well as the mammoth tooth) that were found off the coast of Rye, but hope to soon!  Dr. Will Clyde has seen the mastodon tooth and it is one in excellent shape.   The interesting connection to Rye is that our class also learns about the rocky shore each year and visits Odiorne Point, near the location of where the mastodon fossil was found.  Last June Representative Borden and his wife met us there on our class field trip – it was a great experience.

9. What can people do to help (if anything) with the establishment of a state fossil?

Thom Smith:  Advocate for it.  Publicize the possibility – make it known that this legislation is occurring now and that the more support we have the less likely our students’ bill will be dismissed.  Blog about it (like you are doing), post it on social media, email the possibility of a state fossil to friends and ask them to support the endeavor.  Contacting state legislators is incredibly easy – they are often just an email away, and many are ready and willing to hear your thoughts and voice your opinions in the state house.  The first committee hearing on the possible establishment of a state fossil is January 27th*, and we hope there are more that lead to this LSR becoming a state law.

[*This date was pushed to February, due to inclement weather in NH at that time–author’s note.]

10.  Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you think would be important for people to know?

 

Thom Smith: I would want everyone to know that this request for an establishment of a state fossil was made by students who had a genuine, valid concern and had the motivation to do something about it.  This request was to change our state’s history so that others might learn more about our state history – its ancient history.  It may be debated as to whether or not the mastodon should be considered our state’s fossil, and a healthy debate would be fine, but we would not want our students’ quest to be lost in arguments that could go round and round when the request for a state fossil is not just about what the fossil should be, but more importantly why there should be one: having a state fossil would result in a lot of positives, including an increased interest in paleontology at a variety of levels, particularly New Hampshire’s youth.

NHSF - Rep Borden and Thom Smith

[image of Rep. Dave Borden and Thom Smith at Odiorne Point State Park, courtesy of Thom Smith]

You can read more detail about the events leading up to this past March at Thom’s blog: https://thirdgradesmith.wordpress.com

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

“Good morning!”

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

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

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

Dr. Zazula and mastodon leg

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

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

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

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

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

Cohoes mastodon

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

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

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

ISM - Mammoth tooth

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

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

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

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

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

The path to this remarkable research did not happen overnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bennett mastodon skeleton

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

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

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

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

Jessica Metcalfe with mammoth bone

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper eventually involved a total of 15 people.

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

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

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

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

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

We discussed this further by phone.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

————

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

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

Dick Mol with horse skull

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

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

Articles and publication referenced:

 

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

 

Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1

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

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

 

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

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

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

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

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

ISM - Title Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Mammoth tooth

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

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

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

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

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

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

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

ISM - Hebior mammoth

ISM - Fred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Ron Richards, Dan and Janne Buesching

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

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

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

ISM - Fred installation 1

ISM - Fred installation 2

[Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum, installing Fred]

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Beautiful Fred

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

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

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

ISM - Hall of Giants

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Mammoth and spear

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Map of mammoths and mastodons

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

That number is extraordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Elephants

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

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

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

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

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

—————————–

 *Initial image in the blog post is of mastodons.

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

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

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

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

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