Stegodon: Does this ancient elephant have origins in Asia?

So much has been said in recent years about the wealth of fossils in China. Almost all of it about dinosaurs: exciting new species, feathered fossils, nest upon nest of dinosaur eggs.  There is no doubt that China holds exciting clues to the history of our planet; one has only to wait to hear of the next discovery.

Within the past few months, yet another exciting find was revealed, but this time about a little known mammalian ancestor: Stegodon.

 

Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephens

Painting of a Stegodon by artist Hannah Stephenshannahleestudio.com.

 

The name Stegodon, to me, evokes ‘dinosaur’, not ‘mammal,’ but this was, indeed, an ancient animal.  Its fossils resemble those of other similar mammals, from mastodons to mammoths to today’s elephants.

 

 

Alexandra van der Geer - shrinking elephants

Figure 1: Reconstruction of four insular dwarf proboscideans with their respective mainland ancestors. Mainland proboscideans: 1, Palaeoloxodon antiquus; 2, Mammuthus columbi; 3, Stegodon zdanskyi [stegodon found in China]. Insular proboscideans: 4, Palaeoloxodon ‘mnaidriensis’; 5, Palaeoloxodon falconeri; 6, Mammuthus exilis; 7, Stegodon aurorae [a type of dwarf stegodon found in Japan]. Based on skeletons at Museo di Paleontología, University of Rome, Italy (1), American Museum of Natural History, New York (2), Taylor Made Fossils, U.S. (3), Museo di Paleontología e Geología G.G. Gemmellaro, Palermo, Italy (4), Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum Senckenberg, Frankfurt, Germany (5), Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, Santa Barbara, U.S. (6), Taga Town Museum, Honshu, Japan (7). Photos 1–2, 4–7 George Lyras, photo 3 courtesy of TaylorMadeFossils.com, reproduced here with permission.

From The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer et al; photo and caption courtesy of Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

When Stegodon skulls with tusks attached have been found, many (but not all) of the tusks are close together–preventing the trunk (the ‘proboscis,’ from which this group gets its name; proboscis —> proboscidea) from hanging between them.

They lived in what is now Africa and Asia, causing continued debate over its place of origin. Until recently, the oldest known Stegodon fossil, a 6.5+ million-year-old partial molar from Kenya, was described by William J. Sanders in 1999.  That record changed this past December when Dr. Hong Ao and his colleagues published their results dating the sediment in the Lanzhou Basin, China, from which a number of fossils–including that of a Stegodon–were found.

And that Stegodon was found to be between 8 – 11 million years old.

 

GSA Geologic Time Scale - Neogene

Detail of the Geologic Time Scale, created by the Geological Society of America.  Stegodon is believed to have existed between the Miocene to the Pleistocene, a relatively small segment of time in Earth’s overall history, but still considerably longer than that of our own species!  (You can view the time scale in much better detail here.) 

 

The fossils of the Stegodon, along with at least 5 other species, were actually found in the 1980s by Professor Xing Zhang of Northwest University in China.  Given the length of time between the fossil excavations and the recent dating of these fossils, one might wonder why determining the fossil age took so long.

Dr. Ao, a scientist at the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology, Institute of Earth Environment, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and his colleagues state that western China does not have suitable material for radiometric dating, an oft-used method for this purpose.

When I asked why this was so, Dr. Ao replied by email, “Because volcanic activities are rare in western China during the late Cenozoic, it is difficult to find  in situ tephros or tuffs for radiometric dating (e.g., 40Ar/39Ar dating).”

Instead, they conducted a magnetostratigraphic study, one in which they determined the age of the rock through the polar reversal record.  Combining this with analysis of the fossils provided evidence that this Stegodon is 2 – 5 million years older than that of the Kenyan partial molar.

“We are indeed surprised by our dating results,” Dr. Ao continued, “which document that the Lanzhou Stegodon is the oldest Stegodon worldwide, although the Stegodon  fossil [was] not discovered by us. However, our dating results document it to be the oldest known Stegodon fossil.”

Dr. Hong Ao 1

 

Dr. Hong Ao 2

Dr. Hong Ao 3

Dr. Hong Ao 4

Images of Professor Yongxiang Li (from Northwest University) and his master student as well as several employed workers who helped to excavate mammal fossils, Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.

 

indricotherine fossil

indricotherine fossil2

indricotherine fossil3

Images of indricotherine fossils found in Lanzhou Basin, China; photos courtesy of Dr. Hong Ao.

 

Dr. Ao himself has been working with fossils in the Lanzhou Basin for 5 years.  When asked how  he and his co-authors chose to work together on this recent paper, he wrote, “I have collaborated with them on broad subjects before, thus I [invited] them to join [in] this research.”

Finding information about this extinct species is difficult.  Unlike mammoths or mastodons, Stegodon does not appear to be a popular ancient animal.

Fortunately, Dr. Alexandra van der Geer–paleontologist, indologist, ethno-zoologist and author –has not only studied this species, she very generously made herself available for questions.  Currently, Dr. van der Geer is an Associate Researcher at both the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens and the Naturalis Biodiversity Center in the Netherlands. She is part of the Isolario project, a project that studies biodiversity and cultural evolution within an island context.

When I asked why there was such a dearth of information on Stegodon, she wrote, “We can think of several reasons for this.”

“First of all, stegodons typically are the elephants of Southeast and East Asia, where most countries did not have the resources and opportunities most Western countries had when it comes to scientific research and excavations. These activities are costly, and since they don’t have a direct use in the sense that they don’t advance the medical, technical or economic levels of a country, they have, understandably, a lower priority. Furthermore, because of this region, half the publications (especially before the 1990s or so) you can find are in Chinese or Japanese, which is not very helpful to the [English-speaking] world.

“Secondly, stegodons are forest elephants. Forest areas are very unlikely places for the long-term preservation of organic materials: everything is eaten, digested or otherwise broken down into smaller components in no time. The tropical (warm, humid) climate of these forests is not helpful either, as decomposition is much faster here. Stegodon remains only have a chance to be preserved when (1) they are covered fast, such as with river sediments, volcanic ashes etc., (2) or are in an oxygen-free environment, such as sunken deeply into a swamp, (3) or were deposited in a natural fridge such as limestone caves where they are gradually covered in clayish sediment or [travertines]. The same is valid for Palaeoloxodon, the Old World fossil elephant, but Europe has many limestone caves, which are excellent for preservation (for a nice [travertine]-preserved negative skull, see Stuttgart museum: skull cast SMNS nr. 32888 from Bad Cannstatt).

“As you can deduct from these preservation issues, it is more likely to find molars and tusks than skeletal material, which is much softer. The vast majority of proboscidean findings all over the planet consists of molars and tusks, and that is not for nothing. Inherently this means that there is much more information about their dentition and diet than about their bodies.”

I was interested in understanding why Stegodons are portrayed as hairless animals, so very similar to contemporary elephants.  Was this just an artistic guess?

“The hairlessness of stegodons is not an artistic guess but a scientific guess instead,” Dr. van der Geer answered.  “Very large animals with thick skins (pachyderms) in a (sub)tropical environment are unlikely to have a significant hair covering. Elephants lost their hairs secondarily. The information for hair growth is not lost, and baby elephants still have a thin, woolly coat. Woolly mammoths lived in the cold, temperate zones, and needed hair, so they were covered in a thick layer of hairs, and for this is evidence (mummies preserved in the permafrost), but the other mammoths (M. meridionalis, M. columbi, M. exilis, etc.), [did] not, and it’s generally assumed that they had a light coat fitting to the temperate zones.

“Tropical and subtropical stegodons almost certainly did not have any coat that’s worth mentioning. Stegodons of temperate zones, however, may have been more hairy. Indeed, the lack of hairs makes them look more like today’s elephants.”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Stegodon ganesa-model-I.Vjdchauhan-SiwalikHills

Photo of the two life-size models of Stegodon ganesa;photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

“Note, however, that the proboscis is carried very differently. Their tusks are set very close to each other, so the proboscis doesn’t fit in between as in modern elephants, Asian and African alike. This means that the mobility of their proboscis was more restricted, relative to their living relatives.”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-excavation-31-stegodon-florensis

Fossils of Stegodon florensis insularis, from Flores, Indonesia; photo courtesy of Dr. John de Vos (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.

 

Alexandra van der Geer - stegodon-timorensis-mandible

Mandible (and holotype!) of  Stegodon timorensis; photo courtesy of Eelco Kruidenier (Naturalis, the Netherlands); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  Anyone familiar with proboscidean teeth and jaws will recognize the similarities instantly.

 

But how do we know that Stegodon–a rather enormous animal–evolved into something smaller?

“[D]warfs and giants are relative. Something can be a dwarf, yet have a considerable size. When we speak of dwarf stegodons, we mean stegodons that are much smaller than their ancestors. For this, you have of course to have identical or otherwise similar elements from both the descendant and the ancestor in order to compare reliably,” she continued.

“The expectation is that dwarf stegodons must have existed on the islands, following the so-called island rule, according to which large animals get smaller in isolation. There is sound evidence that this rule still stands, and is even more pronounced for fossil species (see Lomolino et al., 2013, in Journal of Biogeography).

“Indeed, the many fossil molars from the Southeast Asian islands (‘Wallacea’) are all much and much smaller than the same molars from their mainland ancestors (see Van den Bergh, 1999). True, you first have to know what is the ancestor, and for this you need information about morphology, or how the molars, tusks, skulls and postcranial elements look like. After that, you compare the sizes.

“Note that if a molar is, for example, half the length of the same molar of its ancestral species, the body weight of that animal must have been a quarter of that of its ancestor! (the cubic law: linear reduction 50% means volume reduction 50% of 50%).”

Alexandra van der Geer - Flores-stegodon-florensis

Molar of Stegodon florensis; photo courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  

 

“The most interesting dwarf stegodon is Stegodon sondaari, named after the Dutch palaeontologist Paul Yves Sondaar (1934-2003), expert in fossil insular mammals. This stegodon lived on the island of Flores about a million years ago, and weighted only about 15% of the weight of its ancestral species, S. elephantoides (see Van der Geer et al., 2016, in Journal of Biogeography, doi:10.1111/jbi.12743).

“Sondaar’s dwarf stegodon is not the smallest stegodon, that honour goes to the Sumba stegodon (S. sumbaensis), of only 8% of the original weight. Sondaar’s stegodon is interesting because it may have witnessed the arrival of early humans, possibly the ancestors of the Hobbit, or Homo floresiensis. Its fossils are contemporaneous with primitive lithic artefacts, dated to about a million years ago (see Brumm et al., 2010, in Nature 464, pp. 748–752).”

 

Alexandra van der Geer - Sumba-stegodon-sompoensis-holotype-in-Naturalis-Leiden-2

Molar (and holotype!) of Stegodon sompoenisphoto courtesy of Dr. Gerrit van den Bergh (University of Woolongong, Australia); special thanks to Dr. Alexandra van der Geer.  

 

“[R]ecently,” she concluded, “one of the island dwarf stegodons (S. timorensis of Timor) has been dated to about 130 thousand years ago (see Louys et al., 2016, in PeerJ 4:e1788). This excludes, according to the authors, an anthropogenic cause for its extinction, because humans had not yet arrived at the island.”

 

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So many people helped with this blog post!  (But please remember that any errors are my own.)

Many, many thanks to Dr. Hong Ao (Dr. Ao Hong) from the State Key Laboratory of Loess and Quaternary Geology (Chinese Academy of Sciences) for his fascinating responses and the great images of fossil excavations in the Lanzhou Basin.  I am thrilled that he was willing to answer questions about his research and that of his colleagues! It was a great honor and a pleasure connecting with him!

I am indebted to Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer, who very kindly (and so very quickly–despite everything else she has going on!!) answered specific questions about Stegodon that I could not find anywhere else and who provided pictures of dwarf Stegodon fossils.  It was an equally great honor and pleasure connecting with her!

A mastodon-sized thank you to the amazing Dr. Katy Smith for providing needed and hard-to-find material on Stegodon fossils!

And an enormous thank you to artist Hannah Stephens for her depiction of a Stegodon as it may have appeared in life.  I am particularly moved by the warmth of its intelligent-looking eyes, and I love the tones within its skin.  I adore this picture.  I am grateful to have it in this post;  I am thrilled to have the actual painting hanging on my wall!  Please be sure to check out her artwork at: http://hannahleestudio.com or http://hstephens.blogspot.com

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References from Dr. Alexandra Van der Geer:

  1. Brumm A, Jensen GM, van den Bergh GD, Morwood MJ, Kurniawan I, Aziz F, Storey M (2010) Hominins on Flores, Indonesia, by one million years ago. Nature 464, 748–752.
  2. Lomolino MV, van der Geer AAE, Lyras GA, Palombo MR, Sax DF, Rozzi R (2013) Of mice and mammoths: generality and antiquity of the island rule. Journal of Biogeography 40, 1427–1439.
  3. Louys J, Price GJ, O’Connor S. (2016) Direct dating of Pleistocene stegodon from Timor Island, East Nusa Tenggara. PeerJ 4:e1788
  4. van den Bergh GD (1999) The Late Neogene elephantoidbearing faunas of Indonesia and their palaeozoogeographic implications; a study of the terrestrial faunal succession of Sulawesi, Flores and Java, including evidence for early hominid dispersal east of Wallace’s line. Scripta Geologica 117, 1–419.
  5. van der Geer AAE, van den Bergh GD, Lyras GA, Prasetyo UW, Due RA, Setiyabudi E, Drinia H (2016) The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscideans. Journal of Biogeography, doi: 10.111/jbi.12743

References used in this blog post:

  1. New magnetochronology of Late Miocene mammal fauna, NE Tibetan Plateau, China: Mammal migration and paleoenvironments; by Hong Ao, Peng Zhang, Mark J. Dekkers, Andrew P. Roberts, Zhisheng An, Yongxiang Li, Fengyan Lu, Shan Lin, Xingwen Li; Earth and Planetary Science Letters; 1o December 2015
  2. Oldest record of Stegodon (Mammalia: Proboscidea); by William J. Sanders; Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology; Vol. 19, No. 4, Dec. 13, 1999, pp. 793 – 797
  3. Fossil elephantoids, Awash paleolake basins, and the Afar triple junction, Ethiopia; by Jon E. Kalb; Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology; 1995, pp. 357 – 368
  4. The effect of area and isolation on insular dwarf proboscidea; by Alexandra A. E. van der Geer, Gerrit D. van den Bergh, George A. Lyras, Unggul W. Prasetyo, Rokus Awe Due, Erick Setiyabudi, and Hara Drinia; Journal of Biogeography; 11 March 2016.
  5. Magnetostratigraphy – concepts, definitions, and applications, by Cor G. Langereis, Wout Krijgsman, Giovanni Muttoni, and Manfred Menning; Newsletter on Stratigraphy, Vol. 43/3: 207–233, April 2010
  6. Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age, by Adrian Lister, Firefly Books, 2014
  7. Mammoths, by Adrian Lister and Paul Bahn, University of California Press, 2007
  8. The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives, Edited by Jeheskiel Shoshani and Pascal Tassy, Oxford Science Publications, 1996
  • Stegodontidae: evolutionary relationships by Haruo Saegusa, pp. 178 – 190, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives
  • Palaeobiogeography of late Neogene African and Eurasian Elephantoidea by Jon E. Kalb, David J. Froehlich, and Gordon L. Bell, pp. 117 – 123, The Proboscidea: Evolution and Palaeoecology of Elephants and Their Relatives
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Meet Dr. Katy Smith – Mastodon Detective

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

 

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

 

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

ISM - Mastodon tooth

 

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

 

ISM - Mammoth tooth

 

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

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

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

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

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 2

 

ISM - 2005 Bothwell Mastodon 1

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

 

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

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

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

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

The questions, however, are profuse.

Why were so many animals found in that one spot?

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

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

And why were other unrelated animals discovered among them?

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

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

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

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

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

Katy Smith - measuring an African elephant tusk

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Smith -longitudinally bisected tusk

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Katy Smith - female mastodon

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katy Smith - male mastodon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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References:

 

Other references:

 

Cohoes mastodon size comparison

[image of sign in the NY State Museum illustrating the size difference between an extant elephant, a woolly mammoth and the Cohoes mastodon; picture taken by the author]

EoFauna – Science, Art, Dinosaurs, Mammoths – Bringing the Extinct Back to Life!

(**To see any of these incredible images below in more detail, please click on them!)

Initially, the idea was a dream.

Asier Larramendi, from Donostia-San Sebastian, participated in social media platforms with people who shared his enthusiasm for mammoths and dinosaurs. Discussing and debating scientific details. Reading up on the latest scientific papers.

It was through these discussions on a dinosaur blog in 2007 that he met Rubén Molina: another artist, another person passionate about prehistoric life, and a person who—based in Mexico City—lived on the other side of the world.

They quit their jobs in 2010, and they formed a company in 2012.

Their dream took shape in the form of EoFauna, an international collection of award-winning paleoartists, sculptors, researchers and prehistoric enthusiasts. Their goal: to create scientifically accurate representations of prehistoric fauna, using the most up-to-date research as their guide. In addition, they hope to educate others and help correct any inaccuracies currently within the media and in museums.

eofauna - logo

(Image of the EoFauna Logo, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

The members and collaborators of their company are from all over the world:

Sante Mazzei, an award-winning paleoillustrator from Italy;
Andrey Atuchin, a zoologist and paleoillustrator from Russia;
Shuhei Tamura, a traditional artist from Japan;
Jorge Ortiz, a biologist, sculptor and paleoillustrator from Mexico;
Martha Garcia, a technical expert and painter from Mexico;
Shu-yu Hsu, a sculptor from Taiwan;
Feng Shan Lu, a modeler from Taiwan;
Alejandro Muñoz, a sculptor from Spain;
David Zhou, a sculptor from China;
Heraldo Mussolini, a paleoillustrator from Argentina;
Jimmy Liu, 3D animator from Taiwan.

Perhaps most striking about the people who make up EoFauna is that most are self-taught—if not within the science itself, then within their artistic mediums. Their knowledge stems from reading thousands of scientific papers, all of the related contemporary scientific books, and from a powerful motivation to understand prehistoric life and impart that understanding to other people.

EoFauna - extant proboscideans

(Image of extant proboscidean models, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

EoFana - extinct proboscideans

(Image of extinct proboscidean models, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

Asier Larramendi himself, has just published a paper about the Songhua River Mammoths in the peer-reviewed journal Paläontologische Zeitschrift (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12542-014-0222-8).

Their artwork is absolutely beautiful, incredibly detailed and so very lifelike.  One could say that this talented group of artists and researchers bring these extinct animals back to life.

Asier and Rubén very graciously took time out of their busy schedules to answer questions–in Spanish AND in English–about their company, their artwork and their research.

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1. From the “Prehistoric Times” article you very kindly sent, I can see that you and Rubén met through a blog.  How did you meet the other members of your staff?

De muy diferentes maneras, pero básicamente gracias a Internet. Con algunos de los colaboradores nos pusimos en contacto a través de conocidos sitios web de arte como DeviantArt, otros mediante blogs personales y redes sociales como Facebook, también hemos llegado a acuerdos con gente que contactan directamente con nosotros. Siempre buscamos y elegimos Artistas con gran talento y ganas de trabajar en diferentes proyectos. También hemos contactado con otro tipo de profesionales (Biólogos, Paleontólogos) a través de museos y universidades. Uno de nuestros objetivos es crear y dar servicios de primera calidad basados en la excelencia, rigurosidad científica y belleza artística.

In many different ways, but basically thanks to the Internet. Some of the partners we contacted through art websites known as DeviantArt; others through personal blogs and social networks like Facebook. We have also reached agreements with people who contact us directly. We always look for and chose artists with great talent and desire to work on different projects. We have also contacted other professionals (biologists, paleontologists) through museums and universities. One of our goals is to create and provide quality services based on excellence, scientific stringency and artistic pulchritrude.

EoFauna - Skulls

(Image of various skull sculptures, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

2. What kinds of clients contact you?  Is your artwork found in museums or in universities?

Por ahora la mayoría son particulares y coleccionistas, pero poco a poco nos estamos abriendo mercado en museos y otras instituciones, todavía somos una empresa muy joven. Algunas de nuestras paleo-esculturas se pueden ver en el Museo y Centro de Interpretación Luberri (http://www.luberri.org/eu/). Por otra parte ayudamos a museos que requieren de asesoría bibliográfica, identificación de fósiles fragmentados y apoyo para reconstrucción de organismos extintos.

At the moment, most are individual people and collectors, but gradually we are expanding our market to include museums and other institutions. We are still a very young company. Some of our paleo-sculptures can be seen at the Museum and Interpretation Centre of Luberri (http://www.luberri.org/eu/). On the other hand we help museums requiring bibliographic advice, identification of fragmented fossils, and support for reconstruction of extinct organisms.

EoFauna - Charonosaurus Andrey

(Image of Charonosaurus, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

 

3. Would your artwork be used in movies?

Si, eso es algo que tenemos mente, de hecho en estos momentos estamos trabajando en proyecto de animación 3D sobre un Mammuthus meridionalis para un museo Francés. Contamos con un fantástico modelador y un animador 3D de primer nivel. Colaborar en algún documental acerca de la vida prehistórica con nuestros 3D y asesoría científica, eso sería algo genial y trabajaremos para lograr ese sueño.

Yeah, that’s something that we have in our minds.  In fact, right now we are working on a 3D animation project: a Mammuthus meridionalis (Southern Mammoth) for a French museum. We collaborate with a fantastic 3D modeler and first-rate animator. Participating on a documentary about prehistoric life with our 3D and scientific advice, that would be something great, and we will work to achieve that dream.

EoFauna - Mammuthus meridonionalis

(Image of Mammuthus meridionalis, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

4. Have any of you participated in any fossil digs?

Alguno de nuestros colaboradores como Andrey Atuchin ha participado en trabajos de campo un par de años atrás en Blagoveshchensk (Lejano Oriente, Rusia, Cretácico Superior), y en Sharipovo (SO Siberia, edad Bathonian).

Por otro lado Rubén Molina ha visitado algunas colecciones fósiles tales como: Centro paleontológico Lago Barreales (CEPALB) o el museo de La Plata  a fin de tomar medidas propias de los holotipos de Futalognkosaurus,  Macrogryphosaurus, Argentinosaurus entre otros más. Asier Larramendi por su parte ha realizado trabajos de investigación estudiando algunas colecciones de Mueso de China, Taiwan y Europa. Las más destacadas serían la colección del Inner Mongolian Museum, Zhalainuoer National Mine Museum, National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan, National natural history museum of Madrid, Mainz Natural history Museum…

Some of our collaborators. For example, Andrey Atuchin, participated in field work a couple of years ago in Blagoveshchensk (Far East, Russia, Late Cretaceous), and in Sharipovo (SW Siberia, Bathonian age).

Furthermore, Rubén Molina visited some fossil collections such as the Lake Barreales Paleontological Center (CEPALB) or the Museum of La Plata in order to make holotypes of Futalognkosaurus, Macrogryphosaurus, Argentinosaurus among others measures. Asier Larramendi, meanwhile, has conducted research studying some museum collections from China, Taiwan and Europe. The most notable would be the Inner Mongolian Museum, Zhalainuoer National Mine Museum, National Museum of Natural Science of Taiwan, National Natural History Museum of Madrid, Mainz Natural history Museum…

5. Your website says that most of your research relies on scientific papers, but that you’ve also been to a number of museums.  Has there been any specific paper or museum that has truly impacted your research?  Or do you have favorites among museums?

Bien, no hay un articulo en concreto, más bien nos fijamos en los trabajos de diferentes autores que nos llaman la atención. A parte de estar muy interesados en la evolución, filogenia, ecología, comportamiento… de las criaturas prehistóricas, uno de los campos más interesante para poder crear nuestras obras y productos, es el de la anatomía y morfología.

Son numerosos los títulos que utilizamos para nuestros trabajos, sin embargo destacan algunos por contener estudios especializados en ciertos temas:

Paleorecontrucción y estimación de pesos (Gregory Paul, Scott Hartman, Jerison)

Icnología  (Tony Thulborn)

Fisiología (Robert  Bakker)

Historia (Spalding &  Sarjeant)

Geografía (Weishampel, Dodson & Osmólska)

Recopilaciones (Matthew Carrano et al en Paleobiology Database)

Anatomía (Mathew Wedel , Mike Taylor, Mickey Mortimer en Theropod Database, Jeheskel Shoshani )

Bibliografía especializada (Tracy Ford en Paleofile)

Etc…

Tratamos siempre de estar actualizados y conseguir el mayor número de artículos científicos, libros relacionados con los dinosaurios y otros animales, temas prehistóricos, zoológicos y todo lo relacionado con el mundo animal. Por supuesto, uno de nuestros objetivos en relación con los dinosaurios es hacernos con todos los artículos descriptivos de todas las especies descritas hasta el día de hoy, por lo que siempre estamos muy encima en todo lo que se publica.

No tenemos un museo favorito, cada uno tiene su encanto. Algunos museos son muy espectaculares de cara al publico pero su colección en ocasiones es escasa, por lo contrario, en otras veces, pese que el museo es pequeño, en las entrañas de su colección puedes descubrir algo maravilloso que ha permanecido oculto e impacte a la comunidad científica. Todos guardan algún pequeño tesoro.

Well, there is no specific article. Rather, we follow the work of various authors who draw our attention.

Apart from being very interested in the evolution, phylogeny, ecology, behavior… of prehistoric creatures, anatomy and morphology are two of the most interesting fields in relation to our products.

There are numerous titles we use for our work. However, some are highlighted below as they contain specialized studies in certain subjects:

Paleoreconstruction and body mass estimates (Gregory Paul, Scott Hartman, Jerison)
Ichnology (Tony Thulborn)
Physiology (Robert Bakker)
History (Spalding & Sarjeant)
Geography (Weishampel , Dodson & Osmolska)
Compilations (Matthew Carrano et al in Paleobiology Database)
Anatomy (Mathew Wedel, Mike Taylor, Mickey Mortimer on Theropod Database, Jeheskel Shoshani)
Specialized literature (Tracy Ford on Paleofile)
Etc…

We always try to be up-to-date and get the highest number of scientific papers, books about dinosaurs and other animals, prehistoric and zoological themes, and everything related to the animal world. Of course, one of our objectives regarding dinosaurs, for example, is to get all of the recently published described-species articles, so we are always up on everything that is published.

We do not have a favorite museum; each has its charm. Some museums are spectacular for the general public, but its collection might be limited. In contrast, although the museum may be small, something wonderful might be discovered in the bowels of its collection that has remained hidden and might impact the scientific community. Normally all of them have some little treasure.

EoFauna - Guanlong

(Image of Guanlong, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

6. I notice feedback on your DeviantArt pages: http://EoFauna.deviantart.com/gallery/

Do you have a lot of debate with scientists over the details of your artwork?

Si, con Leonardo Filippi por ejemplo, revisamos el género Pitekunsaurus pues al parecer el occipital no coincidía en proporción con los demás huesos encontrados, que por mala fortuna son pocos. Analizamos y comparamos con otros géneros como son Antarctosaurus, Bonatitan, Rapetosaurus, Malawisaurus, Bonitasaura, Tapuiasaura y encontramos que resulta demasiado pequeño. Esto nos lleva a sugerir dos probabilidades, que el cráneo perteneció a otro ejemplar juvenil o que ese género fue un dinosaurio con la cabeza relativamente pequeña.

Yes. For example, we reviewed the genus of Pitekunsaurus with Leonardo Filippi because the occipital bone apparently did not match the proportion of other bones found. Those are very few. We analyzed and compared it to other genera such as Antarctosaurus, Bonatitan, Rapetosaurus, Malawisaurus, Bonitasaura, Tapuiasaura, and we found it too small. This leads us to suggest two probabilities: that the skull belonged to another juvenile individual, or that it was a dinosaur with a relatively small head.

EoFauna - Psittacosaurus bite force

(Image of Psittacosaurus, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

7. Can you tell me more about the book you’re working on? 

Claro, la obra en la que estamos trabajando trata sobre diferentes tipos de records en dinosaurios. Estos records, no sólo tratarán sobre los más grandes y de menor tamaño, incluirá record históricos, anatómicos y taxonómicos. Revisaremos algunos mitos que se han creado a fin de sustentarlos y descartarlos.

La obra está basada en datos recopilados durante años y cuidadosamente analizados para ofrecer un material confiable, además de que intentaremos aportar nuevas observaciones en diversos temas. Como adelanto decir que  mostraremos que dinosaurios fueron lo más grandes y más pequeños por zonas geográficas, periódicas, familias… Por otra parte, nuestro libro será el primero en mostrar todas las especies descritas hasta el día de hoy con su correspondiente tamaño estimado. Contamos con una base de datos basada en miles de artículos y recopilaciones que se publicará junto con la obra, para que se pueda verificar a fin de darle autenticidad de lo que se mostraremos. El libro será dibujado por los ilustradores Andrey Atuchin, Sante Mazzei, Jorge Ortiz Mendieta y los dos autores: Rubén Molina y Asier Larramendi.

Sure. The book we are working on is about different types of dinosaur records. We will include the largest and the smallest dinosaurs by epoch, geographic location, and families. We will also include historical, anatomical and taxonomic records. We will review some myths that have been created and discard them.

The work  is based on data collected for years and carefully analyzed to offer reliable material. Moreover, we will try to try  to bring new observations on various subjects. We will show which dinosaurs were largest and smallest geographically, by different periods, by families… Furthermore, our book will be the first to show all species described to-date with each species’ corresponding estimated size. We have a database based on thousands of papers and collections that will be published along with the book in order that anyone can verify the authenticity of that which we present. The book will be contain artwork by illustrators Andrey Atuchin, Sante Mazzei, Jorge Ortiz Mendieta, and two authors: Rubén Molina and Asier Larramendi .

EoFauna - Eotriceratops vs Triceratops

(Image of Triceratops horridus and Eotriceratops xerinsularis, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

 

8. Do you attend any paleontological conferences?  Will you be attending the Mammoth Conference in Greece this year? 

Si, Asier Larramendi como especialista en proboscideos estará presente en la sexta conferencia internacional de Mamuts y sus relativos (VI International Conference on Mammoths and their Relatives). Acudirán cerca de 200 científicos de todo el mundo, entre ellos varios de los mayores expertos en proboscídeos como Dick Mol o Adrian Lister. Será una gran oportunidad para estar al día de los nuevos descubrimientos y debatir con diferentes especialistas y poder hablar cara a cara con esos colegas que sólo se tiene contacto vía e-mail. La misma conferencia dará la oportunidad de ver in-situ algunos impresionantes hallazgos de probsocidos como los restos del mastodonte europeo, Mammut borsoni, incluyendo los dos colmillos más largos descubiertos en todo el mundo.

Asier por su parte, está preparando un manuscrito sobre la altura, tamaño corporal y morfología de los proboscídeos extintos que será enviado al congreso.

Yes. Asier Larramendi, our proboscideans specialist, will attend the Sixth International Conference on Mammoths and Their Relatives. The conference will be attended by nearly 200 scientists from all around the world, including several of the leading experts in proboscidea, such as Dick Mol and Adrian Lister. It will be a great opportunity to keep abreast of new discoveries and to be able to debate face-to-face with those specialists with whom we have only contacted via e-mail. The same conference will give the opportunity to see in-situ some awesome proboscidean findings, such as the remains of the European mastodon, Mammut borsoni, and the two of the longest tusks ever discovered worldwide.

Asier, meanwhile, is preparing a manuscript on the height, body size, and morphology of extinct proboscidea that will be sent to Congress.

Eofauna - M meridionalis and running paleontologist

(Image of paleontologist running from Mammuthus meridionalis, courtesy of Eofauna.com)

 

9. Can you tell me in what kind of projects or scientific papers are you involved?

Bien, tenemos en mente algunos otros libros relacionados con la vida prehistórica que nos gustaría ir realizando durante los próximos años. Durante esta año por ejemplo, revisaremos algunas colecciones y publicaremos algunos estudios en revistas con revisión científica externa. Asier por ejemplo acaba de publicar un estudio sobre los Mamuts del Río Songhua en la revista Paläontologische Zeitschrift (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12542-014-0222-8), en el que describe un espécimen completo. Como hemos comentado en la pregunta anterior, Asier está trabajando en un manuscrito acerca del tamaño y morfología de Proboscideos extintos. Rubén por su parte, está realizando diferentes estudios sobre la distribución geográfica de los dinosaurios durante las diferentes periodos y un estudio comparativo entre huesos incompletos de diferentes tipos de dinosaurios en México. Los resultados de estos estudios serán publicados durante el 2014.

Well, we have in mind to publish some other books related to prehistoric life over the next few years. During this year, for example, some collections will be revised, and several studies will be published in peer-reviewed journals. Asier, for example, has just published a study on Songhua River Mammoths in Zeitschrift Paläontologische (http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12542-014-0222-8), which describes a complete specimen. As mentioned in the previous question, Asier is also working on a manuscript about the size and morphology of extinct proboscidea. Rubén, meanwhile, is conducting various studies on the geographical distribution of the dinosaurs during different periods and a comparative study on incomplete bones of different types of dinosaurs in Mexico. The results of these studies will be published in 2014.

EoFauna - Juvenile mastodon

(Image of juvenile mastodon, courtesy of EoFauna.com)

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A Mammuthus Columbi-sized thank you to Asier Larramendi and Rubén Molina!  What a great pleasure connecting with them and learning about their exciting company!

¡Muchas, muchas gracias!

Please be sure to check out their website! http://eofauna.com/en/

Asier’s recent paper is here:

Skeleton of a Late Pleistocene steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) from Zhalainuoer, Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, China

Abstract

In 1980, in the Lingquan Strip Mine of Zhalainuoer, Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, China, two partial skeletons of Mammuthus trogontherii were unearthed and subsequently stored at the Inner Mongolian Museum in Hohhot. In March 1984, an almost complete skeleton of M. trogontherii was recovered in the same coal mine. This third steppe mammoth skeleton (Zhalainuoer III) is now exhibited at the Zhalainuoer Coal Mine Museum. It is the best-preserved skeleton of M. trogontherii ever found. A previously identified dropping and the enclosing sediments where the Zhalainuoer skeletons were found were dated to the Late Pleistocene. The almost complete third skeleton (Zhalainuoer III) is that of a fully grown male. The age at death of this individual was estimated at c. 53 years. It had a shoulder height of 389 cm in the flesh and a body mass of 10.5 tons. The completeness of the Zhalainuoer III skeleton provides new information about the morphology and the osteology of M. trogontherii. Especially noteworthy is the complete preservation of the caudal vertebrae.

 

Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Daniel Fisher, renowned paleontologist

When writing an article in 2012 about the exhibit “Mammoths & Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age”,  it was a great honor to be able to connect with Dr. Daniel Fisher.

His bio at the University of Michigan lists him as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Claude W. Hibbard Collegiate Professor of Paleontology; and Curator and Director, Museum of Paleontology.  Per the Museum’s website, this Museum is not open to the public. It is a research facility.

His research on mammoth tusks has informed our understanding of mammoth life: for example, how well they ate, whether they grew well or poorly, and in which seasons this growth took place.

My first introduction to his work was through the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth“, written by Adrienne Ciuffo for National Geographic.  He was one of the international team of scientists to work with Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth to-date.

Per his interview here with National Geographic, some of their research on Lyuba provided “…the first indication of milk residues in a mammoth calf, the first indication of a neck hump in a mammoth calf and the first evidence that this neck fat served a primarily thermoregulatory function.”

Here is a picture I took at the exhibit in Boston. This is a replica of Lyuba, the baby mammoth discovered by Yuri Khudi and his sons in the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia.

LyubainBoston

Dr. Fisher gave so many fascinating answers to my questions.   I was not able to include all of them in the article. He has very graciously enabled me to share them online below:

1. Can you describe your experience with Lyuba?  What she felt like, what she smelled like, whether she was different from other mammoths you’ve worked with (other than being so well-preserved)?  

At the time when we first examined her, she was frozen, and therefore quite hard on the surface, and with no strong smell.  She had been exposed on the river bank for almost a year, and this meant that she had lost a great deal of her original water content, so this also contributed to her firm surface and relative lack of smell, even as she began to thaw, at the time of our first dissection.  When completely thawed, and when we opened her viscera, her organs were soft and wet inside, somewhat compressed, but otherwise, not so different from those of a fresh carcass.  The smell of her internal tissues was not strong, but mildly sour, which as you probably read, was one of the things that first alerted me to her unusual manner of preservation.

2. The documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” and the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science gives some detail about your work with tusks and teeth.  Can you tell me more about how you became interested in that part of Mammoths?  How was it discovered that so much information could be found within tusks and teeth?

I first started down this line of investigation when I was working on one of the first mastodon sites that I excavated here in Michigan.  There was a beautiful pair of tusks found at that site, but they had been bit by the backhoe doing the excavation (for a small pond) and were broken in several places.  On the broken surfaces, I saw a series of very regular dark layers, alternating with lighter-colored layers, all paralleling the surface of the conical pulp cavity at the growing end of the tusk.  It seemed clear to me that these were some sort of growth feature, and their regularity suggested that they might represent features that recurred regularly in time, like tree rings.  I realized that if this were the case, then there might be even more we could learn from the thickness and composition of these layers.  It took several years of work to be entirely sure that these really were annual features, but one discovery led to another, and it’s still unfolding in much this fashion.

3. There seems to be more interest in finding molecular fossils.  Do you see this changing how you collect or work with fossils?  Is this changing how you teach your courses?

Yes, there is more interest in these aspects of fossil material, at least in specimens from relatively recent time periods.  In fact, this doesn’t change our procedures much, because what is required to preserve specimens for molecular analyses is not that different from what is required for the best tissue-level and anatomical study.  There is some change in the content of courses, but these different topics still require their own techniques to handle their own types of data.  We therefore tend to focus most instruction on a discipline by discipline basis.  Students thus get their interdisciplinary exposure through taking multiple courses and working with a variety of colleagues.

4. Part of my article will discuss the possibility of cloning Mammoths. Recently Smart News (a blog from the Smithsonian) reported that Hwang Woo Suk intends to have a live Mammoth in six years.  Do you want to comment on this?  Do you see any benefits or disadvantages to bringing Mammoths back to life? 

I will be surprised if the quality of cellular … really, sub-cellular … preservation is adequate for this.  If only on general principles, I wouldn’t want to absolutely rule out the possibility of cloning, but at this point in our knowledge of these things, it’s a real “long shot.”  There might be some things we would learn if it were accomplished, but it is not self-evident that this would provide clear answers to critical questions.  In other words, learning from any technical accomplishment is more like building a house than opening an treasure-chest.  What you get out of it depends entirely on the design and quality of the study.

5. With cloning, my understanding is that scientists would need to use elephants to do this.  But wouldn’t this create a new species: part-elephant and part-Mammoth? Why or why not? 

There are different cloning procedures being considered, and the somatic cell approach planned by the South Korean investigators could in principle come a little closer to giving you a “mammoth”, but it would still be a “mammoth” … in quotes … that is, you would still rely on some of the cellular structures and developmental “machinery” of elephants.

6. Recently, scientists in Japan reported that they have created fertile egg cells from stem cells.  Do you think this research *might* have implications for bringing extinct animals back to life? Why or why not? 

You would still have to recover viable cells, in this case, stem cells, from preserved carcasses of extinct organisms, and this is the big stumbling block.

7. Do you keep in touch with Yuri Khudi or his family?  If so, how are they doing and do they continue to learn about Mammoths?  (Does his wife still object to Lyuba’s name?) 

We met with one of his sons during later field work and will certainly try to contact him if we are again in the area.  I am in regular contact with museum staff in Salekhard, so there may well be additional opportunities.  From what I have heard, the Khudi family is all doing well.  I don’t know how Yuri’s wife feels now about the name of the mammoth, but even when we spent time with the family, back in 2008, it was not anything that she dwelt on.

8. Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you wish I had? 

Right now, elephants are facing an enormous and growing threat from poaching driven by the ivory market.  If we want to continue to learn about all these animals, elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and their relatives, it is critical that we save elephants.  In another sense, mammoths are also “endangered” — to be sure, they are extinct and now past direct harm from us, but the ivory trade still consumes many tons of mammoth ivory each year, and with it goes untold amounts of information on the biology and environments of mammoths.  The single greatest thing we could do for elephants and mammoths is to encourage use of substitutes for ivory.

1. Article I wrote in the Valley News that includes some of the comments above from Dr. Fisher: http://www.vnews.com/home/3694232-95/mammoths-mammoth-exhibit-mastodons, January 7, 2013

2. Dr. Fisher’s bio at the University of Michigan is here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/research/danielfisher

3. His bio on National Geographic for the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” can be found here: http://natgeotv.com/asia/waking-the-baby-mammoth/biographies

4. And the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology is found here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/