January 23, 2001

Unearthing a Relic

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The Big Red Bear’s magnitude pales when compared to the newest addition to Cornell’s paleontological menagerie, on display at an Ithaca research center.

Discovered in Sept. 1999, near Watkins Glen, N.Y., a 12,000 year old mastodon was purchased soon after by Cornell and exhibited to the public for the first time last week.

More than 200 bones were collected by Prof. John Chiment and a team of faculty, researchers and students and are now at the Paleontological Research Institute (PRI).

“It was very difficult to [initially] tell mammoths and mastodons apart if you only have bits and pieces,” Chiment said.

However, once more of the mastodon was uncovered, it became apparent that there was more than just a mastodon in the boggy pond where the bones were found.

“There appears to be more than one mastodon, possibly two and a mammoth as well,” said Amanda Erwin ’01, who studied the bones during the fall semester for her senior thesis.

Mastodons are relatives of modern elephants that became extinct around 10,000 years ago and were very prominent in the upstate New York area, according to Erwin. This particular mastodon is believed to be 12,100 years old, a figure that was determined by carbon dating the wood found in the same layer as the mastodon.

“What’s interesting about the mastodon is that we had a chance to extract and examine the matrix [sediment and deposits] surrounding it,” said Jim Sherpa, mastodon curator at PRI. “Mastodons tend to turn up in places where there is major construction and they are in the way, such as in the building of a golf course or getting a road through. Typically they don’t get to do a close analysis of the matrix,” he explained.

To examine the matrix, Chiment has coordinated a widespread analysis on several levels to investigate everything from flora and seeds to dating, dendrochronology (the dating of trees) and electron microscopy.

“We’ve been examining the bones and the surrounding matrix, sending five- pound bags of it to elementary schools across the country to spread it out and pick through it,” Chiment said. “We can learn what the mastodon ate; some kids found part of a turtle shell,” which might support the idea of an omnivorous diet, according to Chiment.

The mastodon will serve as an educational tool in the future for students, faculty and archeological enthusiasts.

“Hopefully we will get a chance to work on casting portions of this mastodon in order to make these things available for educational purposes,” Sherpa said.

The mastodon was found in clay along with trees, seeds, cones, different plants, beetles, clam shells and several small mammal bones, painting a clearer picture of what the environment of the Finger Lakes region was like 10,000 years ago.

“Students and masters and doctorials can have access to this resource whether in dendrochronology, in isotopes analysis or DNA analysis, electron microscopy,” Sherpa said. “It gives lots of various ways that an educational institution like Cornell can make this available so that students can learn from it.”

The mastodon remains are approximately 85 percent complete, missing a significant portion of the skull but preserving almost all of the vertebrae, Sherpa said.

“There is a lot of damage on the bones as well and evidence of trampling,” Erwin said, noting that she found no evidence of human activity.

The bones themselves, despite being damaged, have characteristics that may suggest that there were more types of mastodons than commonly accepted by the scientific community, according to Sherpa. However, he warned it was too early to make any assumptions.

“We’re still trying to piece a lot of information together,” Sherpa said. “We are also discussing the possibility that maybe the species has been over-generalized — that there are in fact different breeds and varieties as is known to exist in the mammoths, even possible subspecies.”

The mastodon has a particular characteristic not found in modern elephants — the presence of bumps on the teeth. Humans have this trait as a result of an omnivorous diet, and it is hypothesized that perhaps mastodons shared a similar eating pattern, according to Chiment.

The future of the bones is still tentative. “Maybe Cornell will paint them red” in the future, joked Chiment.

Archived article by Leonor Guariguata