NH State Fossil? – Part 2: Interview with 4th Grade Students

NHSF - Class members

[image of Rep. Dave Borden, select members of the 4th grade class working on the State Fossil proposal and Thom Smith, their teacher when they were in the 3rd grade, courtesy of Thom Smith]

Below is the initial Q&A I exchanged with Thom Smith (the students’ former teacher when they were in the 3rd grade); Lauren Simpson (the teacher of one of two 4th grade classes at Kearsarge Regional Elementary School) and the students.

All answers were given as “Ms. Simpson’s 4th grade class.”

1. Why do you want a state fossil in NH?

We want a state fossil because all the other states around us have state fossils.  There is only one other state has the mastodon, and that is Michigan.


2.  What have you learned about fossils in your class?

We have learned that there are different kinds of fossils.  Not all fossils are bones.  We learned that fossils are like clues.  We learned that digging for fossils can be a lot of fun, but can also take a long time and be difficult. 


NHSF - Class

[image of Thom Smith, students and Rep. Dave Borden, courtesy of Thom Smith]


3.  Do you ever imagine what NH might have looked like when mastodons lived? Does Mr. Smith’s/Ms. Simpson’s class make you think about things like that?


We know the Earth does not look like it did back when mastodons roamed the Earth.  The White Mountains were probably really tall back then, because the mountains hadn’t eroded as much.  Mount Sunapee was probably taller back then, too. 


NHSF - at statehouse


[some of the students getting a tour of the NH State House by Rep. Borden, image courtesy of Thom Smith]


4. Do you think you’d ever want to work with fossils? Discovering them or excavating them as paleontologists?


Yes, because…

  1. it might be cool to find a real fossil from way back and just be able to feel it.
  2. you could see the animals back then that don’t exist anymore.
  3. I think it would be fun digging fossils up like a treasure hunt.
  4. You might go on a really long fossil hunt. You might not find anything interesting but you also might find undiscovered species.  You would need a long attention span, though. 


5.  What do you think about the process of making a mastodon the state fossil? Has it been hard?  Or has it been fun?


I think…

  1. It’s a very long, hard process; it might actually take too long.
  2. It will be fun and a great way for us to learn about bills and stuff like that.


NHSF - at statehouse 2

[image of students touring the NH State House with Rep. Dave Borden, courtesy of Thom Smith]


6.  Is there anything that I haven’t asked that you would want people to know about on the blog?


  1. People should read up on the mastodon.
  2. A fossil of a mastodon was found on the coast of Rye, NH.
  3. It’s going to be really fun to see if we can make it be our state fossil.
  4. If other kids can make other state symbols, we can make this the state fossil.


This is the first half of posts on the NH State Fossil. Up next, comments from some of the legislators themselves.


A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Thom Smith, Lauren Simpson and all of the remarkable students who worked so hard toward a State Fossil!  I remain impressed and inspired by all of them.

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Representative Dave Borden who supported the class and its initiative from the very beginning.  An equally large THANK YOU to the two other sponsors of the bill: Rep. Nancy Stiles and Rep. Tom Sherman!

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to Will Clyde and Wallace Bothner at UNH and Gary Johnson at Dartmouth!

A Mammut americanum-sized THANK YOU to my friend, Gary Andy, who informed me of their work as it developed!

Thank you so very much to Allie Morris of the Concord Monitor for being the first to do a story about this process!

Thank you, Brady Carlson of NHPR and Dave Brooks of the Telegraph, for continuing to highlight this story!



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

The Undetermined Fate of a Rare Triceratops Fossil

If you’ve visited the Museum of Science, Boston, and you’ve seen its fossil room, then you’ve seen Cliff.

Cliff - triceratops

 [image of Cliff, taken by the author]

It is an impressive specimen, and it is named after the grandfather of its anonymous donor.

“Cliff is mostly complete,” wrote E. James Kraus, Jr., the museum’s Executive Director of Development and Campaign Director, “making it one of the world’s rarest paleontological finds, and one of only four other largely complete Triceratops fossils on display in the world.”

The basic details of its excavation, purchase and temporary home in the Museum are in the public record:

  • It was excavated in the Hell Creek Formation in North Dakota in 2004.
  • Because it was discovered on private U.S. land, the fossil could be sold, and it was.
  • It was prepared by a commercial fossil company and mounted in Italy.
  • Its first owner was a private collector from Germany.
  • The fossil was auctioned by Christie’s in Paris, 2008; the asking price was not met.
  • Ultimately, the winning bid of $942,797 was from an anonymous man who was raised in Boston.
  • That man contacted the Museum of Science and offered to loan the fossil for a period of 7 years, as a way of giving back to the community.

Fin du Crétacé, entre 67 et 65 millions d’années avant notre ère, découvert en 2004, Nord Dakota, Etats-Unis
T.Horridus Marsh 1889
Longueur: 680cm.

La longueur totale est de 6m80 avec le montage actuel.
The total length of this lot as currently mounted is 268 in.

Le squelette pourra recevoir le nom choisi par son futur acquéreur. Une plaque de détermination est placée sur le socle avec une surface vierge destinée au nom de baptême futur du dinosaure et au nom de l’acquéreur.

Le socle à gradin en bois et la monture en inox d’inspiration moderniste participe à la préciosité de l’ensemble.
[info from Cliff’s original catalog listing at Christie’s, courtesy of Christie’s]

That 7-year loan is about to expire, and in order to keep the fossil, the Museum of Science is currently trying to raise $850,000 by June 2015.

“At auction, Cliff is now valued in excess of $2 million, and Cliff’s owner has agreed to gift $1 million+ if we can raise the $850,000,” E. James Kraus, Jr. explained.

“We are planning several fundraising events,” he continued, “but the details are still being finalized.”

If you visit the museum and buy anything from its gift shops, you will see donation jars, and you will be asked if you’d like to round up the sum of your purchase to the nearest dollar to go toward this effort.

There is also on online campaign to raise money here: http://mos.org/keepcliff

Twitter: #KeepCliff

The requisite sum might seem extraordinary. And, if nothing else, it calls into question the concept of fossil ownership in this country.  Most people cannot afford to buy such fossils; few would donate them, on loan or otherwise.

This particular author is extremely grateful to be able to gaze at Cliff, stare at it from various angles and ponder what the animal might have been like in life, not to mention what it took to actually excavate the skeleton. The opportunity to see something that enormous and that rare, rather than a replica, cannot be overstated.

This, according to E. James Kraus, Jr., is what the donor hoped.

“He wished to have the fossil displayed for the education and enjoyment of the public and generously offered the fossil on long-term loan to the Museum of Science.”

And yet, the number of unanswered questions—in a field in which questions and transparency are encouraged–leaves this author a little unsettled.  Details that are a normal part of a fossil’s provenance are, in this case, absent to the public.

For example:

  • Who discovered the fossil?
  • Who excavated it?
  • How long did it take to excavate?
  • Who prepared the skeleton?
  • How, if at all, was it preserved?

Further questions, prompted by the situation of buying-and-selling a fossil, are also absent:

  • Who originally sold it to the German collector?
  • Why was the loan to the Boston Museum for 7 years?

And ultimately, the question that rises above all else: If the sum of $850,000 is not raised, will it be put back on auction?


You can help: http://mos.org/keepcliff

The author would like to state–for the record–that personal opinions in this piece are not those of the Boston Museum of Science or of Christie’s.

Truly, thank you to Cliff’s donor for enabling us to share in this wonderful fossil!

Thank you to Erin Shannon, E. James Kraus, Jr., and to Beverly Bueninck!

And thank you to all of those at the Museum of Science for working toward keeping Cliff!

MOS - Cliff

 [image of Cliff, taken by the author]

[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.


(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!

Dr. Brooke Crowley – Secrets Revealed from Mammoths & Mastodons in the Cincinnati Region

It may seem unlikely to uncover details about what an animal ate thousands of years after its extinction, absent of so much of the flora and fauna that co-existed with that animal.

It might seem even more improbable to illicit that information from fossilized teeth alone.

And yet, this is exactly what Dr. Brooke Crowley and Eric Baumann of the University of Cincinnati have done.

Brooke and Eric Baumann on Kardung La

[image of Eric Baumann and Dr. Brooke Crowley on Khardung La, India; courtesy of Dr. Crowley)

They sampled molars from eight different mammoths and four mastodons, each with a known provenance in the Cincinnati region. Analyzing stable isotopes within each tooth provided information not only about each animal’s diet, but also its habitat.

“Isotopes in our tissues,” Dr. Crowley, Assistant Professor of Quaternary Paleoecology, explained in a phone interview, “are environmental integrators.”

“What we like to say is that isotope values in an animal’s tissues can tell you something about its life. That could be the diet, it could be the environment the animal inhabits, or, in the case of strontium, it could be the actual locality where it lives.”

Over the past 30 years, studying stable isotopes has become an increasingly popular method of understanding both paleontological and archaeological finds in more depth.

These chemical signatures reveal details incorporated within the body over its lifetime and remain in its bones past its death. In other words, what one eats and drinks leave traces of elements that point back to that very same diet and to the region from which one drank water. That organic material has footprints, and scientists—using mass spectrometers and other types of analysis—can read and interpret them.

Remarkably, these chemical footprints remain, even after thousands upon thousands of years. And teeth, with their sturdy crystalline structure, seem to offer reliable stable isotope data.

Dr. Crowley and recent graduate Eric Baumann described their research in a paper to be published in Boreas. Carbon isotopes revealed broad information about what these twelve proboscideans ate; strontium and oxygen isotopes uncovered the region and climate in which these animals lived.

They began their research expecting to uncover that the two species were nomadic, that their teeth were discovered in areas geographically distant from their place of origin. They also expected that mammoths and mastodons ate different types of vegetation.

While their research confirmed the different diet, it provided surprising results for habitat: with the exception of one mastodon, all of these animals actually lived and remained within the Cincinnati region.

In response to why they originally thought these animals might be nomadic, Dr. Crowley pointed to the behavior of existing species.

“Most large animals aren’t sedentary.”

“In general,” she explained, “big creatures move a fair amount; they have large stomachs and they eat a lot of food. And there may be different reasons for moving. It could be a dietary need, it could be there’s some particular nutrient in the soil that they want from time-to-time, or there may be a particular region they like for birthing or mating.”

We see this today in humpback, gray and blue whale populations on either side of the North American continent, migrating from warmer regions in the ocean to colder regions thousands of miles north.

“African elephants, in particular, are typically very destructive by nature. They are what we call ‘environmental engineers.’ Their behavior changes the environment around them.”

Perhaps the most notable affect elephants leave in their wake are the trees they knock down. Consider, too, that elephants eat 160 – 300+ pounds of vegetation a day per elephant.

“[T]hey heavily modify an area. Then they move and modify another area. And they typically have pretty large home ranges. Some populations seasonally migrate from one place to another; others are just more continuously on the move.”

Embed from Getty Images

But, she cautions, “we can’t necessarily use that information to interpret the behavior of extinct species. They’re not necessarily that closely related. But it is something we have to go on.”

In their research, the authors include data from water samples taken from rivers and creeks in Ohio and Kentucky.

What, one might wonder, do modern-day water samples have to do with ancient teeth and their composition?

Strontium within water reflects the geology from which it came. This information is stored within teeth, thereby leaving yet more footprints the scientists can interpret.

Of the types of isotopes analyzed, Dr. Crowley explained that “[a] lot more work has been conducted on carbon and oxygen. So we didn’t really need to establish a local baseline for either of those two isotopes. But strontium’s a little less studied, and we didn’t know what sort of regional variability to expect.

“Without any comparative baseline, it’s hard to interpret what strontium in the animals might mean. We could say, ‘well, they’re all really similar’, but if we didn’t really know what to expect for this region, we wouldn’t know if they’re similar to the region or if all of those animals may have come from somewhere else. So we needed to establish a local baseline.”

In other words, they needed to understand the chemical signatures within local water in order to see if they matched the chemical signatures within these teeth.

“[This is] the first step,” she continued, “in what will hopefully be a long-term research direction: thinking about North American fauna and ecological change over time here on our own continent.”

When asked if this meant she would study other extinct animals or continue researching mammoths and mastodons, her response was “potentially both.”

“Currently I’m [working on a] project using strontium isotopes to look in a little more depth at particular individuals.”

Brooke and a bison scapula

[image of Dr. Brooke Crowley with a bison scapula; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

She referenced a mastodon from Michigan as an example.

“[W]e’ve sampled little increments of his tusk to see how he moved during his lifetime.”

“One drawback of teeth,” she mentioned, “is that they just give you a relatively brief snapshot in time, whereas a tusk gives you a continuous record of an individual’s life.”

But she is equally interested in what she described as “big-scale patterns” of behavior across various species. And in this research, ‘behavior’ refers to details about their diet, and whether specific species roamed or remained in a specific region.

“If there is any living taxa that we could sample,” she added, “it would be interesting to see how they may have changed, even if they didn’t go extinct.”

“There’s interesting work that’s been done,” she said, referring to research of one of her colleagues, “[regarding the origins of] fossil deposits that indicates mastodons may have retreated to a particular part of the United States just before the Terminal Pleistocene.”

The Pleistocene is a period of time on earth that dates from about 2 million years ago through about 11-10, 000 years ago. The ‘Terminal Pleistocene’ refers to an extinction event within this period.

“Prior to the Terminal Pleistocene, they were found all over the United States. At the Terminal Pleistocene, they’re only found in a little tiny patch of the United States. Something affected their distribution. And I call it ‘retreat’ because it’s a much smaller distribution than they had before.

“By analyzing isotopes in bones and teeth, we would potentially be able to build off of these fossil distributions to paint a more interesting ecological picture of the Terminal Pleistocene.”

Painting more interesting ecological pictures is a strong focus of Dr. Crowley’s work. A scientist who has travelled extensively throughout the world, her research has taken her to the Canary Islands, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Madagascar. Reading her blog and her website, one recognizes a distinct fondness for the aforementioned African country.

Embed from Getty Images

When asked if Madagascar was where her heart was, she responded, “In many ways, yes. Part of that is that I’ve devoted a lot of time and energy into learning a lot about it. So, now I’m invested.”

“There are certainly conservation issues in our own country,” she continued, “but there are other places–and Madagascar is one of them–where there’s a real need to try to make some changes happen now for future conservation and biodiversity management.”

“Up until recently, the recent past of Madagascar was rather understudied. It turns out that there are a lot of interesting questions that are still unanswered.”

Her website, Agoraphotia.com, describes her specific interests:

I investigate ecological interactions among living and recently extinct animals using stable isotope biogeochemistry. My interests include niche partitioning, conservation biology, and paleoecology. I am particularly interested in the causes and consequences of recent extinctions, and the ecological repercussions of habitat fragmentation and degradation.

She has studied fossilized rodents, lemurs and orangutans; she has researched climate change; she has studied plants and soil.

She lists research projects in which she has been involved:

•Assessing the utility of stable oxygen isotopes in distinguishing dietary niches.

•Distinguishing isotopic niches of fossil rodents in the Dominican Republic.

•Establishing the stable isotope ecology of modern and Prehistoric Trinidad.

•Exploring ecological change following human settlement on the Canary Islands.

•Identifying responses of the animal community to climate change and human impacts in Madagascar.

•Quantifying spatial variability in bioavailable strontium and assessing changes in mobility patterns of extinct and extant North American megafauna.

Prior to the University of Cincinnati, she lectured at the University of Toronto and volunteered at the Royal Ontario Museum in the OWLS (Open the World of Learning to Students) program.

She describes herself as “a relatively new professor in Cincinnati”, one who actively works to try and include students into her research projects. In this, she feels she has been successful, as she has had a number of students involved in her postdoctoral and graduate research and currently has students working with her in the lab.

The study of proboscidean teeth that lead to the paper to be published in Boreas was, she said, “originally designed to be a student project.”

Given her vast and varied experience, one might wonder why the focus was extinct North American fauna.

Explaining that most of her students are either from Ohio or the surrounding region, she said, “It’s a little more relevant for them to think about animals that lived in their backyard than animals that lived on the other side of the planet.”

This, too, is why they used teeth from the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, rather than the collections of other neighboring state museums.

Brooke in Madagascar2

[image of Dr. Crowley in Madagascar next to a sign that warns visitors that “Lake Ravelobe is forbidden” and that “Crocodiles attack”; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]

“Many of the reasons that I do what I do and that I am where I am is because of other people who have helped me along the way or inspired me. And really one of the biggest reasons that I wanted to go into academia in the first place was because I feel like I have been empowered in many ways to try to make a difference.

“And I feel like that’s something that I can share with others and then try to make a difference by empowering others and helping them find their way and be compassionate as well.

“So that’s sort of my goal.”

She chuckled. “I don’t know how much I have really met that goal, but I do try, and I’m still pretty new to being a professor. So, I’m finding my way. It’s a challenge, but it’s a good learning experience, and I find it to be pretty rewarding.”

Brooke on a promontory in Tenerife

[image of Dr. Crowley on a promontory in Tenerife, Canary Islands; courtesy of Dr. Crowley]


A Mammuthus primigenius-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Brooke Crowley for her generous time, help and fascinating responses to my questions!  What a great honor to connect with her!

You can read the paper in Boreas, Stable isotopes reveal ecological differences amongst now-extinct proboscideans from the Cincinnati region, USA:  http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bor.12091/abstract

I had a very difficult time grasping the concept of isotopes. This is due to my struggle with chemistry in general and not a reflection of the gracious people below who took the time to try to help me understand it.  I extend sincere thank you’s to:

  • Dr. Brooke Crowley
  • my dad
  • my sister-in-law who studies science
  • Dr. Suzanne Pilaar Birch (@suzie_birch)
  • Ariel Zych (@Arieloquent) and Science Friday (@scifri)

If you are interested in understanding more, here is further reading:

  1. Dr. Brooke Crowley, Stable Isotope Ecology: http://crowleyteaching.wordpress.com/courses/stable-isotope-ecology/
  2. Stable Isotopes in Zooarchaeology: http://sizwg.wordpress.com/bibliography/
  3. New insight from old bones: stable isotope analysis of fossil mammals, by Mark Clementz: http://www.mammalogy.org/articles/new-insight-old-bones-stable-isotope-analysis-fossil-mammals
  4. Applications of Stable Isotope Analysis, K. Kris Hirst: http://archaeology.about.com/od/stableisotopes/a/si_intro.htm

[REPOST] Origins of National Fossil Day – Vince Santucci




Today is the 5th Annual National Fossil Day!  Below is the original post from 2013.  Please be sure to check local museums for events or check this wonderful resource here: http://nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday/events.cfm

(Per the National Park Service, the gift for President Obama mentioned below will not be given this year.)


National Fossil Day—now in its 4th year—may be in its infancy, but it has been 30 years in the making, according to Vince Santucci.

Santucci–Senior Geologist, Paleontologist, and Washington Liaison for the National Park Service (Geologic Resources Division)–discussed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act and National Fossil Day by phone a week into the current government shutdown.

Paleontology vs Archeology

“Initially in the 70’s,” he explained, “there was an interest in developing protective legislation for both archeological resources and for paleontological resources.”

Many people–including some magazines upon recent review of their websites–confuse paleontology and archeology. While both revolve around ancient remains, they are distinctly different sciences.

Archeology is the study of ancient human remains and artifacts.  The key word here is “human”. Paleontology is the study of fossils—ancient mammals, dinosaurs, fish, bacteria: prehistoric life unrelated to humans.

Santucci credits this confusion as one of the reasons to have separate legislation for the two respective sciences.

The Archeological Resources Protection Act was signed into law in 1979, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the paleontological equivalent became law.

Fossil Theft

“As part of that very long process to establish the new law, we wanted to make sure that it had positive consequences in a wide range of aspects for paleontology. It wasn’t just a law-enforcement law to provide stricter penalties for theft of fossils.”

“What amazed me,” Santucci said, discussing his graduate fieldwork during the mid-1980’s, “as I was out in the field learning the geology of the Badlands, working with visiting geologists, that we were encountering people that were stealing fossils from within Badlands National Park on a regular basis.”

He described one person who had been collecting fossils for 25 years from that very park.

“When he was given a $50 fine for that, I realized that the need for some sort of legislation similar to the Archeological Resources Protection Act was needed by the Federal Government.”

These were but some of the instances that prompted him to obtain law enforcement training.  He explained that he “came on board in 1991 at Petrified Forest National Park as the government’s only ‘pistol-packing paleontologist’.”

Creation of National Fossil Day

The National Forest Service, the Smithsonian and the Department of the Interior worked together on a report to Congress in 2000, according to Santucci.  A lot of the language from this report was used in the legislation that became the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act.

“One of the provisions is one sentence,” he said, “and it basically provides a mandate that the federal agencies shall help to increase public awareness about fossils and paleontology.”

Based on that one sentence, those working to implement the new law decided to “go out and make some partners, do something positive, and establish this National Fossil Day.”

President Obama – Appreciation in a Big Way

Santucci said its popularity was at once a surprise and a success.  It “went viral within the Department of Interior and wound up going to the White House.”

In October 2010—the first National Fossil Day—the National Park Service was presented with a letter from President Obama, the very president who had signed the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act into law the previous year.

“Our Chief Public Information Officer surprised us and showed up on the National Mall in his class-A dress uniform, and he presented to us a letter from President Obama.”

This was, Santucci continued with no small amount of enthusiasm, an important and meaningful gesture to those in the National Park Service (NPS).  The law that brought this event to light took 30 years, and here were wishes for “a wonderful first National Fossil Day” from the President who made it possible.

And the National Park Service is indeed grateful.

Santucci mentioned that the NPS “is working to extend their appreciation in a big way to President Obama.”

(Stay tuned!  While they are not ready to publically announce their plans, you can read more about that exciting news on this blog when the moment arrives.)

Why mid-October?

For the past four years, National Fossil Day has been held on a date in mid-October, and that date is significant.

“The absolute first organization that we reached out to offering the idea for National Fossil Day was an organization called the America Geosciences Institute (AGI). The reason that we targeted AGI is that the National Park Service was already partnering with AGI for Earth Science Week. Earth Science Week is held every year, and it’s been going on for 15 years prior to National Fossil Day. It is an effective outreach program during the second week of October every year promoting earth science.  Through this, AGI reaches between 20-25 million school children and teachers across the country.”

Much of the Fossil Day initiative focuses heavily on activities geared toward children.  Part of that may be deliberate.  When asked about challenges he sees to paleontology in general today, Santucci was quick to point out our country’s struggle with science education in schools.

But he was equally quick to point out that the goal of National Fossil Day is to include people of all ages.

“It’s not just designed for scientists, and it’s not just designed for teachers, and it’s not just designed for kids or federal bureaucrats. It is designed to reach out and touch anybody who’s interested in fossils in any way that they are.”

Interest Grows

With 60 new partners, National Fossil Day now has over 280 partners.  They include scientific organizations, libraries, museums, educational organizations and amateur groups.

The NPS employed two people full-time in order to maintain the National Fossil Day website and update information from their partners.

Santucci mentioned that some partners, for myriad reasons, are unable to celebrate on the actual day designated as National Fossil Day.

“Some of our partners will have their events in the middle of summer because their site might be closed down during the winter months, just because of budget and weather and things like that.”

The NPS response?

“We say ‘absolutely’. It doesn’t have to be on the second Wednesday of October to be National Fossil Day. It’s in the whole spirit of promoting learning and science education.”

“We never envisioned when we sat down with the American Geosciences Institute and said ‘let’s try to establish this National Fossil Day’ that it would have grown as it has. So we have colleagues over in England, Australia, Germany, and China who are saying ‘let’s take this idea and go international and create an International Fossil Day’.  So there’s a whole team that’s plotting out our next undertaking.”

He also described plans to work in more depth with the Children’s Summer Learning Program, linked to libraries throughout the country.

“We’re going to do a whole campaign to help every library across America to establish a reading program called ‘Dig Into Reading’ where it features dinosaurs and fossils.  Libraries will have books available and displays and exhibits to attract kids to come in during the summer and pick up a book or two and read as part of their summer vacations.”

“National Fossil Day has evolved into something far bigger than we had ever anticipated. And the support from our partners has just been tremendous. And we never would have been able to accomplish the things that we have without that very strong National Fossil Day partnership.”

National Fossil Day 2013 – Government Shutdown

When discussing this day and its creation, the government shutdown had already been in place for several days.  The idea that it might stretch through mid-October seemed remote at that time but possible.

In response to questions about it, Santucci was optimistic.

“The National Park Service and the other federal partners like the Smithsonian may not be able to participate on October 16th.  But the vast majority of our 280 partners are non-federal.  And they continue to move forward; they are going to sustain activities. So Congress hasn’t shut them down.”

He finished by saying, “Yes, it’s going to go on. We may not be able to participate on the National Mall as we’d hoped, but we’re happy for all of those events that will occur nationwide.”


For more information on National Fossil Day, please see this link when the government shutdown is over:  http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/nationalfossilday

To see a picture of Vince Santucci, go to page 32 in this book: Hunting Dinosaurs by Louie Psihoyos and John Knoebber

For more information on Earth Science Week: http://www.earthsciweek.org/

Many, many thanks to Vince Santucci for his time and his valuable insight! 

And a T-Rex-sized thank you to everyone who brought about and continues to work on National Fossil Day!

NFD 2010 - Sketch for logo

(Sketch of the 2010 National Fossil Day logo provided by Vince Santucci)

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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storage private collection Urk (1)

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

Highlighting mammoth teeth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compilation skeleton woolly mammoth, NCB Naturalis Leiden (1)


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

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

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

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

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

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

Dick Mol - compilation skeleton

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

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

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

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

Dick Mol


Dick Mol, image courtesy of Hans Wildschut and Dick Mol

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

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

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

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

Trawling and fossils:

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils

Hans Wildschut – fossil finds

Hans Wildschut – trawling for fossils, December 2010

Hans Wildschut – exciting fossil finds and collection (Urk)

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

Hans Wildschut – Remie Bakker’s work


Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 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!

Wankel T. Rex: Historic Fossil and National Treasure Moves to DC

Almost 30 years ago, Kathy Wankel discovered a few bones while vacationing with her family. Bringing these bones to the Museum of the Rockies, Montana—instead of keeping them–enabled paleontologists to uncover a rare, almost complete T. Rex skeleton.

This week, that fossil moves to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.

Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey (Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies), Dr. David Varricchio (Associate Professor at Montana State University) and Julie Price (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers) describe the discovery of the Wankel T-Rex, the challenges of excavating fossils, and the reasons behind this week’s transition.

Big Mike - Bronze Cast of Wankel T.Rex

(image of the bronze cast of the Wankel T.Rex, known as “Big Mike”, image courtesy of the Museum of the Rockies)

Labor Day weekend, 1988, the Wankel family vacationed at Fort Peck Reservoir, Montana, near the Badlands.

Kathy Wankel and her husband, Tom, were taking a moment to look for fossils on a nearby island.

And Kathy actually found a few bones.

“I would like to confess up-front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing,” wrote Kathy Wankel in an email, referring to the fossil that has come to be known as the “Wankel T. Rex.”

“And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious ‘rock hound’ and was fascinated by the Badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck Reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say ‘a fossil,’ by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!”

We know now that what she found was absolutely extraordinary: at the time, it was one of only eleven T.Rex fossils ever found, most of which were not as complete as what she had discovered.

But on that weekend, they just knew they had dinosaur bones. Neither the species nor the size of the fossil was apparent.

Kathy described the discovery in detail.

“My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.

“Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right, and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said ‘You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!’

“The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones, but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’ I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.

“I was so excited, and exclaimed to Tom ‘I think this is a MEGA-FIND!’  I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal, but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to. “ – Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T.Rex


“We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity, and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.”

The Wankels took the bones to the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Bozeman, where paleontologists Jack Horner and Pat Leiggi recognized the bones as the shoulder and arm bones of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

These relatively fragile bones had never been recovered before.

As Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators, explained, “At the time it was discovered, the specimen had the best (most complete) T. rex arm ever discovered. Those little arms just don’t preserve very well in contrast to all the rest of the skeleton which is much more robust.”

He emphasizes the importance of what the Wankels did with the bones they’d discovered.

“The bones were found by amateur [fossil hunters] who did the right thing: they called a museum.”

This is a choice not everyone makes.

One has but to look at the controversy surrounding Sue, another T. Rex skeleton found in 1990 by Sue Hendrickson, or review fossils available for sale online. The United States as a whole has no definitive law regarding fossils found on land outside of that owned by Federal agencies. [*Per Paul Rubenstein at USACE, there is a law regarding Federal lands: the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011] These laws are left to each state. Hence, some states within the US have laws protecting paleontological finds; others do not.

When asked what prompted her to bring the bones to MOR, Kathy wrote in an email, “I knew that the Museum of the Rockies had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.”

“The bones stayed in our basement,” she continued, “until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our ‘find’ to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found.

“Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look, and with big eyes said, ‘You’d better come with me!’ Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!”

Below is a timeline of the events that followed, as described in The Complete T. Rex by Jack Horner and Don Lessem:

  • Labor Day weekend, 1988: Kathy Wankel discovers the bones
  • May 1989: paleontologists from MOR accompany the Wankels to the place of discovery
  • September 1989: additional paleontologists return to this site for further digging and review
  • June 1990: actual excavation of the fossil begins

Someone who is neither a paleontologist nor familiar with fossil digs might wonder why more than a year passed before the full excavation began.

Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, explained further.

“When you find fossils on the surface of the ground,” she said in a phone interview, “you don’t know if they’re the first bones of an entire skeleton underground, whether they’re the first bones to ‘weather out,’ or if they’re the last bones and everything else is gone. I mean, you just don’t know. So when you find something, you kind of poke around and see if there’s more. Because you don’t know at which stage you’re finding that specimen.”

In other words, there is always a chance that no further bones exist.

The paleontologists who explored the site in May 1989 thought there might indeed be more below the surface. This is what prompted a second crew, she added, to go out that September–once the tourist season in the area had passed–and try to discover even more.

“That’s when we found significant parts of the animal,” she said.

But even knowing that more bones exist underground does not necessarily accelerate the dig. There are challenges to excavating fossils.

It is never a quick process, and one must take into account the climate of the area, the logistics of assembling a crew—the people and equipment needed—and the constraints of scientists who are generally working on limited budgets with limited time. Not to mention the accessibility (or lack thereof) of the site itself.

“The land is so inhospitable,” Sheldon McKamey explained of the Badlands, “It’s hard to get things. We find things occasionally that we would love to collect, but there’s no way to get them out. The land really dictates what you can collect.”

 “The land really dictates what you can collect.” – Sheldon McKamey, Executive Director of the Museum of the Rockies, Bozeman, MT


Embed from Getty Images

(Badlands near Hell Creek, Montana, photo by Alan Majchrowicz, courtesy Getty Images)

According to Jack Horner and Don Lessem (The Complete T. Rex), the crew needed “an antiquities permit” from the landowners—the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)–in order to excavate there. The USACE representatives with whom they spoke were “unbelievably cooperative.”

Julie Price, the USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager, offered additional information about this ownership.

“The land where the Wankel T. Rex was discovered was acquired for the Ft. Peck Dam and Ft. Peck Lake by the 1935 Rivers and Harbors Act,” she wrote in an email. “Basically, the Federal Government acquired lands necessary to construct the dam and impound the waters of the reservoir. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is the land-managing agency for the lands surrounding Ft. Peck Lake.”

“Nationally,” she added, “USACE manages 12 million acres of public land and waters, which includes 54,800 miles of shoreline, 7,700 miles of trails and 92,800 campsites.”

When Kathy Wankel found the bones, the area was an island. When paleontologists returned to dig, the water level had dropped.

One might be surprised to know that the USACE generously bulldozed a road into the area in order to help paleontologists access the dig site and then help remove the fossil once excavated.

“This excavation was quite unique as this fossil was not found by a paleontologist with a permit to search and/or excavate on federal land, but a happenstance discovery by a member of the public,” Julie Price wrote. “Since the specimen was located on USACE-managed lands, it was the responsibility of the USACE (federal agency) to preserve and protect the fossil. At the time of excavation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had the capability to assist with heavy equipment needed for the road construction. However, several entities donated time, effort, equipment and professional expertise. The significance of this find spurred all entities to come together to ensure proper preservation and care of the fossil.”

This includes Sheldon McKamey’s brother, Bill, who drove his flatbed semi over 300 miles to the site and then—with sections of the fossil, plastered for protection and ready to travel—another 360 miles to the museum once the excavation was completed. Tom Wankel also helped with his grain-truck.

Dr. David Varricchio described his experience as a member of the excavation crew.

“I was a grad student at the time,” he wrote, “and had worked at a few dinosaur sites before. These were mostly bone-beds of disarticulated skeletons. So, when we got the whole skeleton uncovered and could stand back and look at it as it lay in the ground….that was incredibly impressive. Even though it was dead a long time ago, it still was awe-inspiring and really fit the word ‘dinosaur’. Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”

“Over twenty years later, it remains one of the most impressive fossil localities I have ever experienced.”—Dr. David Varricchio, Associate Professor of Paleontology at Montana State University and one of the original excavators

“We tried to keep the site location a secret, or at least, told as few people as possible in an effort to avoid unwanted visitors,” Dr. Varricchio continued. “So, we were startled one day to see a truck rumbling towards us in the distance.”

“As it got closer, we were further surprised to see that it was a FedEx truck.”

“We all watched in wonder, scratching our heads, as it continued to drive all the way to the site. The driver got out and said, ‘I’ve got a package for Greg Erickson.’ Greg, currently a paleontologist at Florida State University, was a fellow grad student also working on the site. I don’t remember what it was he got.”

With some amusement, Dr. Varricchio recalled, “The driver had asked in town, and they gave him directions. Apparently, everyone knew where we were.”

No small feat in an expanse of land that is remarkably unpopulated and difficult to access.

And the need for secrecy, sadly, makes sense. Fossil theft and damage–then and now—is a very real concern.

Sheldon McKamey, hired by MOR as Director of Marketing in 1987, highlighted this by stating that “if you’d uncovered bones and then left them, anybody could’ve stopped there and scavenged them or damaged them.” She noted that once excavation began, people remained at the site to protect them.

“We knew this was a big deal,” Sheldon McKamey said, “We’d done a lot of advance press on it. We had a NOVA crew coming out to do a documentary on it. And we wanted to have a ‘public day’, so the people that wanted to see it from the surrounding area, or the legislators, or whoever could come. As we dug it up, we knew that we couldn’t put it in plaster until people had a chance to see it.”

“As soon as the press day was over, we started jacketing everything, and it takes a long time to do that.”

Since the excavation, researchers at the Museum of the Rockies have prepared the bones so that they appear in-situ, a process that took years to complete. A bronze cast of the skeleton–upright and complete, as it may have appeared in life–has been greeting museum visitors for years at the entrance to the museum.

This week, however, the fossil is moving to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. The move was originally set to take place in October 2013, but this was rescheduled due to the government shut-down.

When asked why the decision to move the fossil was made, Julie Price responded, “The Wankel T. Rex will always remain the property of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Smithsonian Institute approached the Museum of the Rockies and USACE about a long-term loan agreement for the Wankel T. Rex to be showcased in their new exhibit in Washington, DC.”

“USACE, the Museum and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state. Through a collaborative effort with all entities,” she explained, “USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation. The Wankel T. Rex will be on display in the new 31,000 square foot exhibit space within the National Museum of Natural History and available to eight million visitors annually. Additionally, this specimen will increase research opportunities for scientists and scholars nationwide.”

“USACE, the Museum [of the Rockies] and the people of Montana are very proud of the significance of the specimens that reside in the state.  Through a collaborative effort with all entities, USACE quickly realized the contribution this particular specimen would have to the nation.”—Julie Price, USACE Omaha District Cultural Resource Program Manager

Sheldon McKamey concurs.

“It’s such a wonderful specimen that we’re sharing. We agreed that it should be shared with everybody at the Smithsonian.”

“We have a second US Army Corps of Engineers specimen in our collection, and that one we’re going to mount in the next year or so and put on display at the Museum of the Rockies. So, people will see one here, and they’ll see one at the Smithsonian.”

“The fact is,” she continued, “we’re a research institution, and we got significant data from it. And we don’t collect things just for display. So this is something that I think will benefit a lot of people. And we know that it’s always going to say at the label at the Smithsonian that it’s the Wankel T. Rex, and the museum’s name is going to be a part of that. That’s pretty significant.”

When asked if he was surprised about the fossil move, Dr. Varricchio replied, “Not really. It was collected on federal land, so technically it belongs to the people of the US, and so it seems natural that it would go to the Smithsonian. Plus, MOR has collected a couple more [T.Rex fossils]; our shelves are pretty full. DC is a wonderful place for many people from the US and abroad to get to see it.”

But Kathy Wankel has a slightly different opinion.

“We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC,” she wrote. “We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as ‘The Nation’s T. Rex.’ The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.”

The Wankel T. Rex begins its journey to D.C. on April 11th. Events are planned at the Smithsonian on April 15th to celebrate its arrival.

And how does one move a fossil of that size across the country?

Apparently, the Smithsonian has contracted the very same company that surprised the crew during the dig.

It will be moved by a FedEx truck.

Embed from Getty Images

Full Q&A with Kathy Wankel, discoverer of the Wankel T. Rex:

1. Were you looking for fossils when you found the bones? Do you want to describe how you found them?

I would like to confess up front that really it was either blind luck or divine providence that I found the thing. And here is why I think so: Yes, I was a curious “rock hound” and was fascinated by the badlands that surrounded the Ft. Peck reservoir. And yes, I was looking for a fossil when I discovered the T. Rex. But when I say “a fossil”, by that I mean that prior to finding our T. Rex, I had found bits and pieces of what I thought were fossils, but I had never before found an entire fossil bone!
We found our T. Rex Labor Day weekend of 1988. My husband, Tom, and I and our three children, Lee (then 8 years old), Rock (then 5), and Whitney (then 14 months) were enjoying one last weekend of camping and fishing at Ft. Peck Reservoir before the start of the school year. Tom’s brother, Jim, and his daughter, Christy, were also camped there with us.

Jim generously offered to look after the children while Tom and I took the boat across the bay to look for bones. Tom was walking below along the base of a small, eroded gumbo ridge while I walked along the top of the ridge. The sun was just right and I spotted a small knife-blade-shaped protrusion in the gumbo. I could see some fine whitish-grey chips and the distinctive bone pattern. Just as I was getting a closer look, Tom yelled that he thought he may have found something. I said “You’d better come up here…I think I have found something better!”

The gumbo clay dirt surrounding the bones was baked hard as cement as Montana was experiencing an extreme drought that year. We used Tom’s pocketknife to chisel away at the gumbo surrounding the bones but decided we needed more tools. The small protrusion of bones later turned out to be the top ridge of the shoulder blade and the ends of some rib bones. I was so excited and exclaimed to Tom “I think this is a MEGA-FIND”! I was pretty sure that the bones we had discovered were the real deal but had no idea what kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.

We went back to camp and loaded everyone in the boat to come see what we had found. But more digging would have to wait for another time. We needed to pack up camp and get home to get ready for school. We vowed to come back the following weekend. But that didn’t happen. As you may recall, 1988 was the year of the terrible fires in Yellowstone Park. Our governor put a moratorium on all outdoor activity and it was mid-October before we were able to go see what exactly we had found. The evening of the day we removed the bones there was a horrific thunder and lightning storm.

2. What prompted you to bring them to the Museum of the Rockies?
I knew that the Museum of the Rockies (MOR) had recently excavated and preserved a triceratops skull that was found on a neighbor’s ranch. I thought the people at MOR would have the expertise to identify the kind of dinosaur the bones belonged to.
The bones stayed in our basement until November of 1988 when we made a trip to Bozeman to be with my sister for Thanksgiving. We took our “find” to MOR and asked if someone could identify the bones we had found. Pat Leiggi came outside to our station wagon, took one look and with big eyes said “You’d better come with me!” Pat and the other paleontologists were able to immediately identify the bones as belonging to a meat-eating dinosaur and they were pretty sure the bones were the small front arm bones of a T. Rex, some of which had never been found before!

3. You discovered the bones in 1988, but the actual dig didn’t begin until 1990. There is a very cute passage in The Complete T-Rex (Jack Horner/Don Lessem, as I’m sure you know!) that describes the paleontologists asking you to keep the info about the fossil “under your hat”, and your husband said he thought a “bigger hat” was needed.

Yes, Tom got a bigger hat…a ten gallon cowboy hat …and we were able to keep the site a secret. In the summer of 1989, Tom and I led Pat Leiggi and Ken Carpenter from MOR along with a US Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) representative to the site. Pat and Ken explored and decided there may be more of the skeleton embedded there. It must have taken some time to get the proper government approvals completed and time to gather enough financial resources for MOR to send a field crew later that summer. The excavation was started in the summer of 1989 and was completed in 1990.

4. Do you want to comment on your feelings or any surprises you experienced throughout those years, from discovery to full excavation?

It has been a wonderful learning experience for our entire family. We have met (and continue to meet) wonderfully interesting people, have been interviewed by CBS This Morning with Paula Zahn, numerous newspapers and magazines, were in a PBS/NOVA documentary as well as other documentaries, and even a family trip to Los Angeles to appear on a game show “To Tell the Truth”!

5. Have you and your family visited the T. Rex at MOR over the years? Were you already a dinosaur-fan or did the discovery prompt you to learn more about them?

Yes, our family visits MOR frequently whenever we are in Bozeman. We have been witness to MOR developing from a small building in 1988 to the world-class museum that it is today.

6. Were you surprised that the T-Rex is going to DC, and how do you feel about it?

We have mixed feelings about the Wankel T. Rex being moved to DC. We feel very honored that millions of people will be viewing our discovery and that our T. Rex will now be known as “The Nation’s T Rex”. The loan/lease agreement between the USACE and the Smithsonian is for 50 years. We hope that our T. Rex will be able to come home to Montana at the end of those 50 years.

7. Is there anything I haven’t asked that you would like people to know?

Twenty members of our extended family are making the trip to Washington DC. for the Wankel T. Rex reception events at the Smithsonian. What great memories for our entire family!


I would like to extend a T. Rex-sized ‘Thank you!’ to Kathy Wankel, Sheldon McKamey, Dr. David Varricchio, Julie Price, Mark Robinson, and Kevin Ropp! What a great pleasure and honor!!

Thank you to Paul Rubenstein at USACE for informing me of the Paleontological Resources Preservation Act of 2009, Public Law 111-011!

You can follow the fossil’s move to DC on Twitter: #trexroadtrip

Interested in supporting current fossil digs or paleontological research? Check your local museum and see how you can help!

Find out more about the Museum of the Rockies: http://museumoftherockies.org/

The fossil is moving to the Smithsonian, National Museum of Natural History (NMNH): https://www.mnh.si.edu/

More info on USACE, per Julie Price:

“USACE owns other fossils.

“Those fossils are managed by the local USACE District offices administering the lands from which they are discovered. These local USACE offices are assisted and provided with technical support by the Corps Mandatory Center of Expertise for the Curation and Management of Archaeological Collections Center (CMAC) in St. Louis.

“The Center which was created by USACE in 1994 is responsible for curation of archaeological materials, curation of associated documentation, collections management, collections management database development and special purpose design and construction requirements of curation facilities. The Center also assists other Army major commands, Department of Defense services and agencies, and other federal, state, and local government agencies.

More information is available here http://www.mvs.usace.army.mil/Missions/CentersofExpertise/CurationMgmtofArchaeologicalCollections.aspx”

VI International Conference on Mammoths and Their Relatives – May 2014!

Every three to four years, mammoth experts and scientists from all over the world congregate for several days to discuss the most recent findings and cutting-edge discoveries.

This year, that event takes place in Greece.

This location is particularly fitting, not only for its exciting mammoth and mastodon finds (including the world’s largest tusks found to-date), but also because the name of the mammalian Order to which mammoths belong is derived from a Greek word: proboskis (προβοσκίδα).

The name Proboscidea–from proboscis (trunk)—aptly describes some of its more popular members: today’s elephants and yesterday’s mastodons and mammoths.

This marks the 6th time this conference has been held.  It is not an annual event, nor is it necessarily held in the same location or on the same continent.

This year’s honorary president is a US-based scientist: Dr. Larry Agenbroad, from the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Dr. Larry Agenbroad

(Image of Dr. Larry Agenbroad with short-faced bear replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad)

The president of the conference is Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Thessaloniki, and one of the team of paleontologists who excavated the largest tusks mentioned above.

The vice president is Dr. George Theodorou, Professor of Palaeontology and Stratigraphy at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

The list of scientists and experts involved in this event is both impressive and exciting.  Among so many others, (there were too many to mention here, but you can find them at this link) some of the participating specialists are:

  • Dr. Paul Bahn, British archaeologist and co-author of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age with Dr. Adrian Lister;
  • Dr. Daniel Fisher, Professor at the University of Michigan, Curator and Director at the Museum of Paleontology, Michigan, mammoth-tusk expert, and one of the original scientists to study Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date;
  • Dr. Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum, London and dwarf mammoth expert;
  • Dr. Frédéric Lacombat, paleontologist at the Musée Crozatier, France, and president of the Vth International Mammoth Conference, 2010;
  • Dr. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, London and author of the two most comprehensive books on mammoths published in English;
  • Dick Mol, mammoth expert from the Netherlands who has been involved in mammoth research and discoveries for decades, and one of the paleontologists who excavated the tusks in Greece with Dr. Tsoukala;
  • Dr. Doris Nagel of the Institute of Palaeontology, University of Vienna;
  • Dr. Maria Rita Palombo of the Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza;
  • Dr. Alexei Tikhonov, Deputy Director of the Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg,  Scientific Secretary of the Mammoth Committee, Russian Academy of Sciences, and also one of the scientists who originally studied Lyuba;
  • Dr. Haowen Tong, Adjunct Professor of the Graduate University, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista

(Image of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista, Municipality of Voion, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)

Evangelos Vlachos, a PhD student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and one of the many organizers of the event very generously responded to my questions.


1. What will your PhD be in and what is your doctoral thesis? How did you become involved in the Mammoth Conference?

I am doing my PhD on Vertebrate Paleontology, specifically on the study of turtles and tortoises from Greece.

But what is a “turtle guy” doing at the Mammoth Conference?

Well, being part of Evangelia Tsoukala’s team includes excavating for proboscideans, including some of the biggest ever lived. In my first years of study, I considered working with fossil proboscideans, but later I changed to the study of chelonians.

My first experience with the Mammoth Conference was at the Vth Mammoth Conference in Le Puy-en-Velay, France in 2010.  In Le Puy, the Greek side participated with many oral and poster presentations, and the scientific community had the chance to get familiar with the exciting proboscidean findings from Greece.

Poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team

[Image of poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team during the Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

2. How wonderful that the Mammoth Conference is held in Greece this year! How was the decision to hold it in Greece made?

Indeed, it is wonderful, but it was sudden!

Normally, at the end of each conference, the Organizing Committee examines all of the available proposals and decides where the next Mammoth Conference will be held.

In Le Puy, the Organizing Committee decided that Anchorage, Alaska would host the VIth Mammoth Conference in May 2013. Although the scientific community was excited to visit this remote place, which has played an important role in the history of the mammoths, things didn’t work out.

In the beginning of 2014, new proposals were requested. Within a few days, we filed a proposal to host the next conference in the historic towns of West Macedonia, Grevena and Siatista, which have brilliant collections of fossil proboscideans.

Luckily, our proposal was accepted, and we are honored to host the next conference in Greece.

Dutch artist Remie Bakker

[Children making their own mammoth under the guidance of the Dutch artist Remie Bakker, during the opening ceremony of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista. Similar events are going to be held during the conference (2011, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

3. Who organizes this conference and who determines the president of the conference? (Do the organizers change each year?)

The organization of the conference is the responsibility of the Organizing Committee.

Some members are regular; they have been there since 1995 when the first conference was held in Saint Petersburg.

Specialists like Dick Mol provide the experience of organizing a Mammoth Conference and access to the network of the proboscidean scientific community.

Many people from the host country itself are involved to make sure that everything will be organized in detail. The organizers of the conference are supported by the Scientific Committee: specialists of various topics related to the conference. Their role is to consult the committee in scientific matters and to serve as reviewers of the abstracts and papers submitted to the conference.

This year, we are privileged to have a large Scientific Committee of 43 specialists from all fields related to proboscidean study. Moreover, in this conference, many young scientists are included in the Scientific Committee, which is very important for us. One of the goals of this conference is to ensure that the study of proboscideans will not only have a glorious past, but a great future as well.

4. Who typically attends this conference? Do you have an idea of how many people will be attending this year?

The Mammoth Conference attracts the interest of scientists from many different fields, but all joined by the interest of promoting knowledge surrounding proboscidean evolution.

Among the numerous participants, you will find paleontologists presenting new findings that improve our knowledge of the fossil record; geneticists examining the DNA of present-day elephants and from the frozen carcasses of the woolly mammoths; scientists applying new techniques like stable isotope and dental microwear analysis on proboscidean molars; archaeologists investigating the interaction between humans and proboscideans.

This is not all. At each conference, something new comes up!

Early registration for the participants closed on 31th of January 2014.

The interest of the proboscidean community in the VIth ICMR was enormous and far exceeded the expectations of the Organizing Committee!

We received more than 150 registrations from all corners of the world: from Cape Town, South Africa in the South to Stockholm, Sweden in the North; from Wollongong, Australia in the Southeast to Edmonton, Canada in the Northwest; from Kusatsu, Japan in the East to Nevada in the West; from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in South America to Yakutsk in Siberia. In total, all the participants will have to travel more than 11 times the circumference of Earth to come to Grevena and Siatista!

Mammoth Conference Global Participants

 (Geographic representation of this year’s Mammoth Conference participants, image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR))

5. How does one decide what topics and papers will be discussed?

The Organizing Committee, in close co-operation with the Scientific Committee, set an initial number of topics to be discussed in the conference. They have to summarize the current open questions in the field.

Some of the topics, however, are “classical,” we could say, such as the information from soft tissues from the frozen carcasses, or the interaction between humans and mammoths.

At the same time, in every conference we are trying to promote the regional research by proposing topics that could stimulate researchers to come up with ideas. For example, in our conference, we are particularly interested in the “primitive” probiscidean proboscidean forms–before the appearance of mammoths–like the mastodons or gomphotheres.

Sometimes, the participants are able to propose new topics of interest. This was the case with our Brazilian colleagues, who suggested we have a session on extinct South American proboscideans that, until recently, have been relatively unknown.

6. What do you think is the most exciting part of the Mammoth Conference?

As a young scientist, the most exciting part is definitely to get to know all the well-known specialists in this field and exchange ideas with them.

Standing up in front of a well-qualified audience and presenting your ideas is a great challenge. But the experience you get is unique.

Presentations - Vth ICMR

[Presenting in front of the world’s leading experts (Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France, 2010, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]


In the end, when you are returning to your country, you feel overwhelmed by the information you have received. But as the days go by, ideas start to form and with the experience gained by attending an International Conference, you can make good progress on your studies.

Science is not only reading and writing, but communicating your ideas.

Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon

[Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon. Now this specimen is part of the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia (2012, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

Moreover, it is always exciting to take part in the field trips of the Conference.

In our conference, not only we will visit all of the impressive sites in Northern Greece, like Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida, but we have planned a unique post-conference field trip. The participants will travel to the remote island of Tilos where the last European elephants lived, as dwarf forms, in the Charkadio Cave. To reach this island, we will go through Athens and the world famous site of Pikermi.

Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques


[Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques. One of the sites that the participants will visit during the Field Sessions of the conference (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]


7. Are there any challenges to organizing or hosting the Mammoth Conference?

One word: logistics.

The amount of work needed to arrange everything–the registrations, the abstracts, transportation and accommodation, the field trips–is enormous. In those cases, especially when you have so many people from different countries and cultures, you need to pay attention to every detail to make sure that all will go according to plan.

But the Organizing Committee is working hard, night and day, to extend an example of traditional Greek hospitality to everyone involved!
8. Is there anything else that you would want people to know?

Latest News:

This week, members of the Organizing Committee visited the places where the conference will take place (Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida) and inspected all venues, exhibition and facilities. At the moment, everything is going according to plan and the Organizing Committee works day and night to make a wonderful conference for the participants.

 Paleontological Exhibition of Milia

(Image of the the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia, Municipality of Grevena, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)


I would like to extend an Archelon ischyros-sized thank you to Evangelos Vlachos for his lightning quick responses to my emails, his generosity and his detailed answers! 

When he mentions that the Organizing Committee works night-and-day for this conference, he is not kidding. Some of our emails were exchanged at 3am his time!  

Σας ευχαριστούμε!

Thank you, as well, to Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala and to Dick Mol, who also generously shared their time for this post (behind the scenes)!

Please check out the VI International Conference website:  www.mammothconference.com

You can follow them on Twitter! @mammoths2014 / #mammoths2014

Videos on YouTube related to the Conference and excavating the world’s longest tusks from the mastodon in Greece!

a. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caDUsZHehyY&list=UUJJtPaGIosoQiSHtBSyQ7RA&feature=c4-overview

(The video above is multilingual.)

b. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCMDHJSTYZE&list=LLIWT11-xMeFd4CEztS2eB9g

c. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJPB4Vdy70A&list=LLIWT11-xMeFd4CEztS2eB9g

It has been my great honor to have connected previously with two of the many mammoth experts listed above:

Dr. Daniel Fisher:


Dr. Larry Agenbroad: