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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

Screenshot from this page of the Illinois State Museum website.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

• an 11,000 year-old bison kill site,

• and the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia.

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

Dr.LarryAgenbroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——————————————————————————

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

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

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

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

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

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

Latin names of mammoth species mentioned:

Pygmy mammoths = Mammuthus exilis

Woolly mammoths = Mammuthus primigenius

Columbian mammoths = Mammuthus columbi

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

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

Meet Lyuba – Mummified Baby Mammoth in London

“She’s beautiful.”

So exclaimed Professor Adrian Lister upon seeing Lyuba as the lid to her crate was first opened in London. Lyuba is a 42,000-year-old baby mammoth, and her state of preservation is breathtaking.

”It was an emotional experience to be face-to-face with a baby mammoth from the Ice Age,” Professor Lister said. “I’m so thrilled that our visitors will be able to experience that, too.”

NHM-DrListerLyubawelcome

[image of Professor Adrian Lister with Lyuba, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

Her discovery occurred in 2006, thanks to a family of Nenets reindeer herders in Siberia. Lyuba was initially found–her body partially exposed in the snow–by Yuri Khudi’s son. She was recovered in the spring of 2007, and she is named after Mr. Khudi’s wife.

NHM-YuriKhudiSon

[image of Yuri Khudi and son, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

If you are in London, you can actually see her on exhibit in Mammoths: Ice Age Giants currently at the Natural History Museum.

Mammoths: Ice Age Giants is a traveling exhibit from The Field Museum, Chicago. Since 2010, it has been seen throughout the United States (albeit under a slightly different title), but most museums have included a replica of the baby mammoth.

LyubainBoston

 

[image of Lyuba replica, taken by the author’s cellphone at the exhibit in Boston, 2012]

The replica is remarkable. But the opportunity to see Lyuba herself is extraordinary.

When asked how the Natural History Museum was able to obtain the actual mammoth, Professor Lister wrote, “The Museum worked closely with Lyuba’s home institution, the Shemanovsky Museum – Exhibition Complex in Siberia, Russia to get the opportunity to showcase Lyuba as the star of the show in Mammoths: Ice Age Giants. This involved complex contract negotiations and we are very grateful to the Shemanovsky Museum for the loan of such an important specimen.”

Hilary Hansen, one of the Field Museum’s Traveling Exhibition Managers, explained that only one of the US museums has been able to showcase Lyuba thus far.

Surprisingly, the reason is not related to cost.

“[T]he Russian government has a moratorium on loans to the US,” she wrote, “so only international venues get to host her.”

(You can read more about the origins of this moratorium here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/arts/design/03museum.html)

And how does one ship and display such a rare and enormously valuable specimen?

It was explained that Lyuba has been thawed since discovery, but her body was essentially freeze-dried over the course of her 42,000 years of burial. She traveled to London in a purpose built wooden case which has padding/foam fitted specifically to her body inside so as to protect her during travel. Within the exhibition, she will be displayed in a climate-controlled and sealed case.

NHM-LyubaVisitors

[image of Lyuba and visitors, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

So much has been learned about mammoths since her discovery. Through CT scans, autopsies, and other tests, scientists have been able to ascertain more about her diet specifically and mammoth biology in general.

NHM-LyubaScientistsRussia

NHM-LyubaScientistsLab

[images of Lyuba and scientists, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

 

An exciting example is described in Professor Lister’s latest book, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age: the discovery of a pharyngeal pouch between the larynx and the back of her tongue. He discusses the relatively recent knowledge of this anatomical feature in today’s elephants. The pharyngeal pouch can be used for communication and to store water. Elephants in Namibia, he explains, have been seen reaching into their mouths with their trunks and spraying themselves with water they had drunk hours before. (page 80)

Pieces of material believed to be partially digested milk from Lyuba’s mother were found in her stomach (page 84), and her intestinal contents point to a practice used in today’s elephants as well: eating adult elephant feces as a way to introduce needed bacteria for digestion. (pages 84-85)

These are the kinds of exciting details one can explore in this exhibit. Using interactive displays, fossils, sculptures and other artwork, this exhibit not only introduces the visitor to some of the fascinating research being conducted today, but also summarizes some of what we’ve learned about proboscidea to date.

There is a video describing Lyuba’s discovery, and another explaining the remarkable details one can learn from mammoth tusks, both of which feature Dr. Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan (one of the original scientists who studied Lyuba). There are videos behind possible mammoth behavior, as well as the types of ancient vegetation discovered in soil specimens.

Life-sized models of Pleistocene fauna, including a short-faced bear, a saber-toothed cat and an enormous Columbian mammoth, give added depth to what most would only see in their fossil remains.

Columbian mammoth replica

[image of Columbian mammoth model, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

Artwork can be found throughout the exhibit. In a striking display of the diversity of these animals, a sculpture of a dwarf mammoth stands beside a bas-relief of an elephant, a mastodon and a Columbian mammoth. Full-sized fleshed-out sculptures of proboscidean heads—species that lived prior to mammoths and mastodons—extend from the wall.

And fossils—numerous teeth, skulls, tusks and bones—from mammoths, mastodons and other Pleistocene animals can be seen throughout. A cast of the Hyde Park mastodon from New York gives visitors a chance to walk around a complete fossil and see it from every angle. The replica of a mammoth fossil in-situ lies below a time-lapse video of what a particular landscape might have looked like from the time of that mammoth to the present day.

NHM-Mastodon

[image of Hyde Park mastodon cast, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

The exhibit is geared toward all ages, with activities for children through adults, and having prior knowledge of mammoths or paleontology is not a prerequisite.

“A key element of the exhibition for the family-focused audience is the interactive activities,” wrote Professor Lister, “such as feeling the weight of the food a mammoth ate in one day, trunk moving and tusk jousting.”

Given its popularity and the success with which it introduces a wide variety of people to the subject, one might wonder how the exhibit took shape.

“The idea originated from staff at the Field Museum several years ago. It was one of several ideas that came about during a process of brainstorming ideas,” Hilary Hansen explained. “The other topics that came about were George Washington Carver, natural disasters, and biomimicry. We tested these topics, along with many others, with visitors, the general public, museum members, and other museums around the country but those were the ones that rose to the top. It helped that the frozen baby mammoth, Luyba, had recently been found in Russia.”

“The whole process took about 3 years, I’d say,” she continued. “And as a whole, probably involved 60+ people to identify and conserve the specimens, develop the content with curators, design the exhibitry and graphics, source and license ages, build interactives, create videos, and build the show.”

“We did a lot of visitor studies and market research before we created [it]. I can’t say that we’ve received any feedback that startled us. It’s been very well received. In fact, the Times gave it 5 stars. That was wonderful.”

The exhibit has been seen from places as far as Chicago to Anchorage, from Boston to San Diego, but recently, from Edinburgh to the relatively nearby London.

When asked if the two recent locations in the UK were a coincidence, Hilary wrote, “We booked these two venues about 3 years ago. We were deliberate in finding 2 consecutive venues in the UK so they could share shipping expenses, which can be significant for an exhibition of this size. These two museums have worked together in the past so it was a smooth transition from one venue to the next. We book our exhibitions about 2 or 3 years out, though there are some exceptions.”

The exhibit has not changed since its inception. But, she wrote, “[s]ome venues have added graphics or specimens for their presentation, if it pertained to their own programming and collections.”

As an example, she added, “The Denver Museum of Nature and Science added a whole section about their Snowmass excavation site. But that didn’t continue on with the tour.”

Which makes the Natural History Museum an exciting place for this exhibit to temporarily reside. Proboscidean experts, Dr. Victoria Herridge and the aforementioned Professor Adrian Lister, are employed there and gave talks about their research. They have, in fact, resurrected the work of Dorothea Bate—an inspiring fossil hunter of the early 1900’s who discovered dwarf mammoth fossils in Crete—and have shed new light on her work.

NHM-DrHerridgeLyuba

[image of Lyuba and Dr. Victoria Herridge, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

“Other researchers must have visited the collections to look at the fossils,” Dr. Herridge explained, referring to the fossils Bate brought back to the museum, “but to the best of our knowledge we are the first to have published a taxonomic study based on the fossils themselves (rather than simply referring to Bate’s own papers or Osborn’s Proboscidea). This probably reflects the resurgence of interest in island dwarfing as a research topic in recent years.”

Dwarf mammoths—smaller versions of larger species, as their name implies—have also been referred to as ‘pygmy’ mammoths.

Is there a difference?

Dr. Herridge wrote, “The terms are used synonymously for the most part. I prefer to use ‘dwarf’ for island dwarf hippos because it helps to differentiate them from the extant hippo species Choeropsis liberiensis which has the common name ‘pygmy hippo’ — this species is not the same as the island dwarf hippos, and did not evolve to be small because of an island environment, and using dwarf helps to avoid confusion on this subject. Similarly, there is a cryptozoological belief in the existence of a ‘pygmy elephant’ in the jungle of West Africa, and using ‘dwarf elephant’ for small island elephants helps to avoid confusion here too. And to be consistent, I then also use dwarf for the small island mammoths and deer as well.”

Information on the Museum’s website indicates more work needs to be done.  It was explained that “[c]urrently there are no dates whatsoever associated with the Cretan mammoth fossils, and only a small number of dates for fossils on Crete in general. With colleagues from U. Bristol, U. Oxford and UCLA, Dr. Herridge and Professor Lister are currently working on a project to date many of the sites that Dorothea Bate excavated on Crete, including the dwarf mammoth locality. They have relocated the sites, and then taken samples for uranium series and optically stimulated luminescence dating. No new excavations for fossils have been carried out as yet, but if the results prove interesting more may be done in the future.”

NHM-ColumbianMammothSkull

[image of Columbian mammoth skull and tusks, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

 

“The exhibition will allow visitors to enter the amazing world of some of the largest creatures to have ever walked the earth,” concluded Professor Lister. “[Mammoths: Ice Age Giants] will take visitors on a journey from the time when these titans roamed the land through to today’s research into the causes of mammoth extinction, using new scientific research from the Natural History Museum.”

———————–

Watch a video of the exhibit! Mammoths: Ice Age Giants – “It’s not just the bones!” | Natural History Museum

More information from Dr. Victoria Herridge about dwarf mammoths! Identification of the world’s smallest mini mammoth | Natural History Museum

And learn about the possible causes of mammoth extinction from Dr. Adrian Lister! The Last of the Mammoths | Natural History Museum

Visit the Natural History Museum in London before 7 September 2014 to see this fascinating exhibit! http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/mammoths-ice-age-giants/

Watch Waking the Baby Mammoth from National Geographic (written by Adrienne Ciuffo) to learn more about Lyuba’s discovery: http://www.natgeotv.com/asia/waking-the-baby-mammoth/videos/waking-the-baby-mammoth

Order a copy of Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age by Professor Adrian Lister for more fascinating details about proboscidea: http://www.fireflybooks.com/bookdetail&ean=9781770853157

Dr. Victoria Herridge will have a new book published in 2015, The World’s Smallest Mammoth: http://bloomsburywildlife.com/victoria-herridge/

Extreme insular dwarfism evolved in a mammoth: Paper written by Dr. Herridge and Professor Lister, their research of dwarf mammoths on Crete, initiated by Dorothea Bate in the early 1900’s

A Mammuthus meridionalis-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Victoria Herridge, Professor Lister, Hilary Hansen and Helen Smith for their time, their help and their generous responses to my questions! What a great honor and a true pleasure!!

The Mammoth Site and Dr. Larry Agenbroad – Renowned Paleontologist

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

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

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

• an 11,000 year-old bison kill site,

• and the Jarkov mammoth in Siberia.

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

Dr. Larry Agenbroad

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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*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!