September 20, 2000

Cornell Acquires Mastodon Remains

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Cornell University’s Department of Geological Sciences has acquired one of the most complete and well-documented fossil remains of mastodons, relatives of modern elephants, ever found in the state of New York.

The University bought the bones this summer which will soon be on display at the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI) in Ithaca.

The bones were discovered in northern Chemung County, just south of Watkins Glen, about 30 miles from Ithaca, in September 1999. The site included a pond and a bog located in a glacial valley.

The excavation was finished in late November and was run by a team of more than 60 scientists, students and volunteers, headed by paleontologist Prof. John Chiment, geological sciences.

The discovery includes the remains of two mastodons, according to Chiment. One, called the Gilbert Mastodon, estimated to be a 35-year-old male animal, is more than 80 percent complete. It is believed to be around 12,100 years old. The other is a smaller mastodon and is less complete. Preliminary carbon dating reveals that the animals lived around 12,500 years ago.

Chiment and other geologists from around New York State will meet over the weekend of Oct. 1 for the annual geology meetings at Hobart and William Smith Colleges.

They will then travel to the PRI to see the Chemung and Hyde Park specimens, and to the site south of Watkins Glen on Route 14.

Cleaning and studying the bones, a process expected to take many months, has already begun. “The Watkins Glen mastodon is now completely collected and is undergoing curation and display,” said Chiment. Work on the bones will be organized cooperatively by Cornell and PRI, and the public will soon be able to view them in PRI’s public exhibit facility.

PRI also unearthed a third mastodon skeleton from a pond in Hyde Park, Dutchess County, New York. The skeleton was finally located in the bottom of the pond on August 21.

“We believe that we have now uncovered essentially all of the skeleton that is exposed in the upper several layers of bones within the central excavation area, ‘the pit’,” said Warren D. Allmon, director of PRI.

The Hyde Park mastodon is an American mastodon (Mammut americanum) that seems to have been an older adult, and it most probably weighed between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds.

A preliminary core sample and carbon date done on a tusk fragment indicated an age for the mastodon of 11,480 plus or minus 60 years. “This makes it younger than the Cornell mastodon from Chemung County and only about 1000 years older than the youngest known American mastodon,” Allmon said.

To date, more than 155, or 70 percent, of the bones are accounted for, including an almost complete skull and lower jaw, shoulder blades, pelvis, more than 20 ribs, most of the fore and hind limbs, vertebrae and foot bones. “The skeleton is virtually complete and beautifully preserved. Very few bones are broken or damaged,” Allmon noted.

The mastodon in Hyde Park is currently being excavated by students from Vassar College, Marist College, Dartmouth University, Cornell University, Dutchess Community College and Mount Holyoke University. The excavation is expected to last from one to six months.

“Our focus now turns to mapping, documentation and extraction of the bones we have located and those directly underneath,” said Allmon.

Archived article by Ritu Gupta