Monday, September 11, 2017

The Pope Mastodon

Here's another article I wrote for the latest issue of Tracks and Trails, the newsletter for Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, Connecticut.

I've had a fondness for mastodons ever since I worked at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History (though when I was working there it was called the Ruthven Exhibit Museum). Two of the most prominent exhibits in the prehistoric life hall were a pair of complete skeletons of these hairy pachyderms (well, technically not complete- a few bones were substituted from other, less complete finds. And a couple bones were even recreated using early 3D-printing). Their enduring presence at the museum left an indelible mark on my memory. And apparently I wasn't alone in my fondness for these beasts as the mastodon was declared Michigan's official state fossil in 2002.

The U of M mastodons. Male on the left, female on the right.

Here's a clearer view of the female skeleton. Though she's not as dynamically posed as the male, she does have the distinction of being on display at the museum for several decades before her counterpart was unearthed and assembled.  

A close-up of the male's right femur, which was 3D-printed from a mirrored digital model of the left femur. You can clearly see the triangular "pixelation" due to the low resolution of this earlier technology.

And since I'm gushing over mastodons already, here's a set of mastodon footprints also from the U of M Natural History (Fotprints! From a mastodon! Could there be a finer fossil? Surely everyone must know by now that my other big fossil obsession is fossil trackways.)  

It was a very pleasant surprise to find that Connecticut has its own mastodon- though this one is sadly in storage at the moment. Fingers crossed that it'll eventually find a permanent home somewhere. 

Writing this article took a bit of basic detective work since the bones have been moved around so much. But I actually got to see them in real life AND discovered a very cool museum out on the western edge of the state.

Due to the newsletters limited space, I only got to share a few of the photos I took of the Post mastodon. But lucky for us a blog has no such limitations, so you'll get so see a lot more than the poor newsletter readers. Because really, who can ever get enough of looking at mastodon bones? 

Anyways, here's the article in full.


It was not so long ago that giant beasts roamed New England. Under the shadow of retreating glaciers, amid the conifers and cold prairies that have themselves migrated far to the North, mastodons roamed. Protected from the chill winds blowing off the ice sheets by coats of thick, woolly fur, these distant cousins to the elephant and the more well-known mammoth inhabited Connecticut until nearly 12,000 years ago.   

Though mastodons look similar to mammoths- a confusion that is not helped by their scientific names (Mammut americanum for the mastodon, Mammuthus primigenius for the woolly mammoth)- the two animals had several distinctive differences. Mastodons were lighter-built with shorter legs. They also had a flatter back and head as opposed to the mammoth’s sloping back with its large fat-storing shoulder hump. 

A side-by-side comparison of a Mastodon (in front) and Mammoth (in back). Note: models not to scale. Or, er, color in the case of the mastodon. Mammoth model from Safari Ltd, Mastodon from tams7prairie on Ebay. 
The biggest difference, however, lay in the structure of their teeth and what they ate. Mastodons browsed on trees and bushes using large, cone-shaped cusps on their teeth for crushing tough twigs and leaves. Mammoths had ridged washboard-like teeth for grazing on grasses. Due to these different dietary preferences, mastodons inhabited the dense, scrubby forests of prehistoric America while mammoths stuck to the open grasslands.

(note: I didn't mention this in the article that got published in the newsletter, but "mastodon" means "breast-tooth". It was named by the French naturalist Georges Cuvier, who thought the tips of the cusps looked like human breasts. Uh, okay... if you say so, Georges.)

Tooth comparison. On the left is the Mammoth's ridged, grass-grazin' tooth. On the right is the Mastodon's pointed twig-crushin' and browsin' tooth. Also not looking particularly boob-like. Tooth models from the U of M Natural History Museum

The arrival of humans in North America is believed to have contributed significantly to the extinction of both woolly beasts, though the warming climate and changing habitats also probably played a significant role. Yet even though the mastodons may no longer roam America, their bones still lie waiting in the Earth

In 1913, workers digging a trench at Hill-Stead, the farm and house of Farmington industrialist Alfred A. Pope, uncovered just such a cache of giant bones. Realizing the significance of this find, the superintendant of Hill-Stead contacted the Peabody Museum. A team of experts from Yale guided by Professor Charles Schuchert, head of the museum’s paleontology department at the time, led the workmen in an excavation that unearthed a nearly complete mastodon skeleton. The body was missing only its tail, the small bones of the feet and its tusks. Though one of the latter would eventually be discovered a few months later.  

Workmen from the Hill-Stead site with bones. Picture courtesy Colleen Swift, Assistant Director of the Institute for American Indian Studies

The excavation was a local sensation and over the course of a week almost 2,000 people flooded the Hill-Stead property to get a glimpse of the bones being removed from their tomb. Numerous newspapers- some from as far away as Maine- reported on the discovery. It is not surprising that so many folks took an interest in this find. The mastodon had long held a fascination for Americans ever since the first five pound molar was dug up on a New York farm in 1705. Initially the creature to whom this giant tooth belonged was call the incognitum or “unknowable”.  But throughout the 18th century many more teeth, tusks, jaws and other gigantic bones were tilled from the soil, allowing scientists to identify the beast as a cousin to the elephant, though one that was unique to North America. Thomas Jefferson himself would use the mastodon as a symbol of the strength and vigor of the New World to counteract the belief among European intellectuals that the fauna of America was smaller and weaker than that of Africa and Europe.  

Jaw bone with considerably worn-down tooth cusps. In storage at the Institute for American Indian Studies

Since it was first freed from the ground in Farmington, the Pope mastodon has had quite a journey around Connecticut. At various times it has been housed at Yale, at the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History in Storrs and briefly at the Hill-Stead property itself. However, the majority of the skeleton’s time has been spent at the Institute for American Indian Studies in Washington, CT. The Institute, as stated on its website, “preserves and educates through discovery and creativity the diverse traditions, vitality and knowledge of Native American cultures.” The Pope Mastodon would make its first stop there in 1977  when the IAIS- then called the American Indian Archaeological Institute- incorporated it into a larger exhibit on the archaeology and life ways of the early Paleo-Indian inhabitants of Connecticut. It would remain on display until 1989, when it was sent into storage at the University of Connecticut, though it returned to the IAIS in 2015 for a 40th anniversary retrospective on the museum’s history.

Fibula, tibia and a knee cap. From the IAIS storage.

Close up of the tibia showing marks left by roots that grew around the buried bone

An analysis of the Pope Mastodon also undertaken in 2015 by the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History determined the animal had died between 14,775 and 14,255 years ago, making it the oldest discovered mastodon in the Northeast.

Tired of looking at Mastodon bones? Of course you aren't! Here's a pile of ribs.

Okay, last photo. Here are a couple toe bones and a vertebra in the back. Note the long spinous process on top of the vertebra, and compare it to the pictures of the articulated skeletons at the beginning of the article. These processes anchored the thick muscles of the mastodon's neck and front legs.

Currently the Pope Mastodon is housed once again in storage at the IAIS.  But even if you can’t see the bones themselves, the Institute is definitely worth a visit to learn about the history and living culture of Native Peoples- particularly the Peoples of Connecticut such as the Schagticoke, Golden Hill Paugusett, Quinnipiac, Mohegan, Mashantucket Pequot, Eastern Pequot and other Nations. 

The Institute for American Indian Studies Museum and Research Center is located at 38 Curtis Road in Washington, CT. 

Check out the IAIS' website here

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