Thumb-area teachers to help U-M scientists dig mastodon bones
ANN ARBOR—Ten Thumb-area teachers will help University of Michigan paleontologists unearth the remains of an 11,000- to 13,000-year-old mastodon next month in Tuscola County, Mich.
The excavation is a joint project between U-M and the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning in Mayville, which owns the property where bones of a mastodon—an extinct relative of the elephant—were discovered two years ago.
The bones were exposed by natural erosive processes. Preliminary studies of the recovered bones suggest the mastodon’s carcass may have been processed by early humans, according to U-M paleontologist Daniel Fisher, who will lead the excavation.
Elementary, middle school and high school teachers from Tuscola County were invited to apply to join Fisher’s crew. The selected teachers will help dig for mastodon bones, wash them, map the excavation site and conduct related activities that “may involve getting wet or muddy, hot or cold, tired, sore, and excited about Michigan’s Ice Age history,” according to the application form sent to schools this month.
Fisher and Kyle Middleton, executive director of the Fowler Center, will select 10 teachers and several alternates for the dig, which is scheduled for the weekends of Oct. 8-9 and 15-16.
“In addition to its scientific importance, our work at this site will enable teachers from the region to experience the thrill of discovery and to pass it on to their students,” said Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology and professor in the departments of Earth and Environmental Sciences, and Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
“It’s our hope that these teachers will gain a deeper understanding of how science operates and how our knowledge of the natural world grows,” said Fisher, who has conducted research on mastodons, mammoths and elephants for more than 35 years.
The Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, established in 1957, provides year-round camping experiences for people with developmental disabilities and special needs. The mastodon bones were discovered when a teacher was leading a nature walk on the center’s 202-acre property. Mayville is in Michigan’s Thumb region, north of Lapeer and east of Saginaw.
Staff members from the Fowler Center contacted U-M paleontologists when the bones were found. Fisher’s team visited the site and identified the bones as coming from a mastodon, then determined that other bones remain in the ground.
The two parties then began thinking about the possibility of a joint excavation. They decided that inviting area teachers to help with the dig would be a good way to share the discovery with the surrounding community.
“A big part of the Fowler Center’s mission is to enhance personal growth through outdoor adventures that provide an opportunity for learning by doing. And that’s exactly what this partnership with local teachers and U-M researchers is all about,” Middleton said. “The idea is that the teachers will use this experience to enrich their teaching and to share the excitement of discovery with their students.”
U-M undergraduate and graduate students and staff members from the school’s Museum of Paleontology and Museum of Natural History will also participate in the dig. The bones will be donated to the U-M paleontology museum for further study.
During preliminary examinations of the site, Fisher’s team collected a couple dozen mastodon bones from the surface, including limb and foot bones, ribs and vertebrae. Some of the bones were fully articulated when discovered, meaning they remained in the same relative position to each other as when the animal was alive.
That’s unlikely to occur when a large animal dies of natural causes and its carcass is exposed to the elements. In that case, scavengers often pick apart the carcass and scatter the bones.
At the Fowler site, it looks like early human hunters or scavengers may have stored mastodon meat at the bottom of a pond that no longer exists, Fisher said. The mastodon bones are buried 6-to-8 feet below the current ground surface in loose, silty deposits, called marl, that contain substantial amounts of calcium carbonate. The fine-grained sediments are believed to have been deposited on the bottom of a pond at the end of the last ice age, Fisher said.
The cold, low-oxygen environment of the pond bottom would have helped preserve the mastodon meat. Fisher said he has previously investigated more than a dozen of these prehistoric pond-storage sites in the Great Lakes region.
“Finding the articulated remains of a mastodon in a pond setting is strong evidence of human involvement,” said Fisher, who believes a similar scenario played out near present-day Chelsea, where the U-M team excavated the remains of a mammoth last October.
Some of the mastodon bones from the Fowler Center site also bear cut marks that may have been caused by humans as they processed the carcass. Humans were present in the Great Lakes region by at least 13,500 years ago.
During the excavation at the Fowler Center site, a backhoe will be used to quickly remove soil above the bone layer. Then the crew will use shovels, trowels and other hand tools to uncover individual bones. Initially, a plot measuring roughly 10 meters by 10 meters will be excavated.
Over the decades, the remains of roughly 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been found in Michigan, according to Fisher. Mastodon and mammoth bones have been recovered in most Michigan counties in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, he said.