Mastodons' Big Impact; Discoveries of Their Bones Jump-Started Paleontology

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), November 22, 2007 | Go to article overview

Mastodons' Big Impact; Discoveries of Their Bones Jump-Started Paleontology


Byline: Christian Toto, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Mastodons - stocky, elephantlike creatures with massive tusks - roamed North America before going extinct between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago. Researchers are still learning new information about the creatures and the lives they led, thanks to a slow but steady trickle of fossils found each year.

Nancy Moncrief, curator of mammalogy with the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, says finding mastodon fossils isn't nearly as difficult as sifting for dinosaur fragments. A few years ago, some farmers in New York uncovered mastodon bones while plowing their fields.

"Finding them is total serendipity," Ms. Moncrief says.

Those bones help tell scientists about the creatures, from where they lived to the food they ate.

Though their cousins the woolly mammoths had flat teeth ideal for grinding, mastodons used conelike teeth for browsing on shrubs. Isotope analysis of mastodon fossils also tells researchers about the food they ate.

Mastodons, which means "nipple tooth," belong to the order Proboscidea, a group that also includes mammoths and modern elephants. The creatures stood from 8 to 10 feet tall and weighed up to 6 tons.

The American mastodon lived from Alaska to New Mexico, but other variations lived throughout the world, according to the San Diego Natural History Museum.

The early study of mastodons helped develop the paleontology field, says Ted Daeschler, associate curator in vertebrate zoology and paleontology with the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

"Mastodon bones were probably some of the first fossils that were found," Mr. Daeschler says, adding that the creatures' bones and teeth were particularly durable.

Their earliest discovery, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, came at a time when the idea of extinction was just bubbling up, he says.

Some people of the era used the discoveries to promote carnival-style theatrics, like posing mastodons as monsters, but more responsible figures spoke out in favor of scientific study, he says.

Thomas Jefferson was one person who tried to kick-start his country's scientific community.

"I feel like Jefferson was using mastodons as the poster child for science ... the way dinosaurs are used to teach grade schoolers about science," Mr Daeschler says.

Frustrated by his countrymen's unwillingness to embrace some scientific principles, Jefferson helped start the collection named in his honor at the Academy of Natural Sciences.

The learning that began with Jefferson and his peers continues today, says Daniel C. Fisher, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Michigan. New specimens of mastodons are found "more or less every year," Mr. Fisher says.

A well-preserved fossil typically means one in which the bones are whole, not fragmented, where the material was found in wetland environments with oxygen-poor sediment. Oxygen helps accelerate the organic breakdown of material like bones.

"Structural details of the bones can be essentially pristine," Mr. Fisher says, adding that the best specimens still have the original collagen within the bone.

The information gleaned from studying these bones has led to a number of recent changes in the way scientists view the mastodon.

One example of updated thinking is how the creatures behaved during mating periods.

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