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!

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Mammoths and Mastodons in Indiana – Part 1

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

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

 

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

Indiana State Museum - Ice Age depiction

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

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

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

ISM - Title Wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Mammoth tooth

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

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

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

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

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

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

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

ISM - Hebior mammoth

ISM - Fred

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Ron Richards, Dan and Janne Buesching

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

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

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

ISM - Fred installation 1

ISM - Fred installation 2

[Images courtesy of Indiana State Museum, installing Fred]

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

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Beautiful Fred

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

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

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

ISM - Hall of Giants

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Mammoth and spear

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Map of mammoths and mastodons

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

That number is extraordinary.

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

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

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

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

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

ISM - Elephants

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

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

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

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

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

—————————–

 *Initial image in the blog post is of mastodons.

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

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

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

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

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