Scientists, educators unearth mastodon in Michigan’s thumb

IMG_0642The most complete Michigan mastodon skeleton in decades was uncovered in Michigan’s thumb this month by a team of University of Michigan professors and local teachers.

Just down the road from the dig site outside of Mayville, a yellow advertising sign labeled simply “Mastadon” points me in the right direction.

Down the road cars are parked tightly together around a few tents leading down to the stream where two years ago bones were found sticking out of the bank.

The air is filled with the hum of pumps doing their best to keep water away from the excavation.

Kyle Middleton is the Executive Director of the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning. She said they teamed up with the University of Michigan to get paleontologists and local teachers digging together.

“What our plan is is to have the teachers go through this learning process and then taking it back into their classroom.”

That’s important, she said, because it gives teachers a hands-on experience with an animal that lived somewhere between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago.

When I ask her if I can see the Mastodon, Middleton points across the stream to where orange flags decorate the ground around the bones.IMG_0654

“They’re sticking right out of the dirt there – they’re slowly trying to work around it and get it to come to the surface.”

Abigail Chapman, a science teacher at Caro High School, said the dig has been pretty cool.

“We ended up finding what we think is the pelvis, which is pretty awesome. Got really muddy and dirty and it’s been fun.”

Chapman said it’s important for students to know that science can be fun.

“I try to impress on my students that science isn’t this abstract thing, it’s very much something that’s happening in the real world. It’s how scientists, how we as a society, learn new things.”

When I finally have a chance to corner Daniel Fisher, the Director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan, I ask how unusual this dig is.

“This site is already pretty rare. I say that because it is rare to find this many bones of one animal and the other thing that makes this rare is finding them early enough in the history of discovery and erosion and loss of the material they were able to get in and document it.”

Fisher said this is the most intact Mastadon found in the state since the 1940’s. Of the roughly 300 Mastadon sites in Michigan only 10 have been as intact as this one.

IMG_0650 “An animal like this can potentially tell us not only about itself but also about its environment and in this case we think also perhaps how it interacted with contemporary humans.”

Mastodons, like their distant relative the Mammoth, existed during the same time as early humans and Fisher has a theory about what led to their extinction: humans did it.

“Mastodon populations were experiencing lots of hunting.”

According to Fisher the more sites like this he sees, the more it becomes evident that there was a lot of human and mastodon interaction.

“One mastodon might not tell you whether humans caused mastodons to go extinct, but twenty mastodons might if they showed the right patterns.”

Fisher said the best record of human and mastodon interaction is a mastodon’s tusk.

“That tusk is a record of life circumstances. It’s a record of growth rates, at least tusk growth rates throughout that animal’s life. And that pattern of growth throughout life would be expected to show certain things if the environment was good and certain things if the environment was not good. Certain thing if the animal was being hunted, certain things if the animal was not.”

Because the tusk size relies on whether the Mastodon is eating enough, Fisher said it’s a great way to know if the animal died because it wasn’t getting enough food or if it died because it was hunted.

“So in a deteriorating environment we would expect tusk growth to be slower. In fact in the animals, shortly before the time of extinction even, we see tusks that are growing more rapidly than they had at any other time in their history. That doesn’t happen if their food supply is going to pieces.”

All of this is important, said Fisher, because it helps us better understand our role in shaping the world.

“Given my current understanding of these problems I would say we need to come to grips with the idea that even primitive humans can have major impacts on their environment and the animals around them. I think that we today, many people would consider this self evident, are having a major impact on our world. If we want to understand ourselves and our place in the world we better come to grips with that.”

For Fisher, and to all of the teachers and scientists that participated in the dig, Mastodon’s may have a few things left to give.