By COLIN MACDOUGALL
AND MADI TORTORA
Imagine, more than 14,000 years ago, Michigan is covered in ice. In the 4,000 years that followed, mammoths and mastodons roamed the earth and very well could have walked the streets WCC students take today. In the not so far away Lima Township, a farmer named Jim Bristle stumbled upon something extraordinary: the fossil of one of these Pleistocene heavyweights.
“It was a chance find. It was a very lucky placement of a drain that led to the discovery,” said Adam Rountrey, the research museum collection manager for vertebrates of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan. Dan Fisher, the director of the Museum of Paleontology at the U-M was called out to investigate the fossils the farmer stumbled upon in the fields of Lima that day.
“I got a couple of emails that Wednesday morning, and that afternoon I visited the site with the landowner, Fisher said. “Basically we decided then that if more was going to happen, it needed to happen the following day.”
That evening, Fisher assembled an excavation team and the next day they headed into the field.
“I could easily tell (the fossils) were part of the pelvis and shoulder blade. I was fairly certain that it was a mammoth rather than a mastodon,” Fisher said.
Rountrey earned his Ph.D. in Paleontology by studying mammoths in Siberia.
“Both mammoths and mastodons were elephant-like animals – both Proboscideans related to modern elephants,” Rountrey said. “They both are present in Michigan at the same time, perhaps slightly different environments.”
Rountrey estimates there are around 250 mastodon specimens reported in Michigan since around 1839, whereas only around 40-50 mammoths have been reportedly discovered.
Dr. Rountrey explained that this is an old male mammoth probably on the larger end of the spectrum. Mammoths like this one stand around 11.5 feet tall and tipping the scale at around 6.5 tons. That puts it at a weight a little more than that of a Hummer H2, and stands at a height taller than a school bus, surpassing the size of any pickup in the parking lot at WCC.
Mammoths and mastodons only existed for a relatively short period of time in Michigan’s history. 14,000 years ago there was still ice over Michigan. As the glaciers began to retreat, Michigan became a more habitable environment, and the remains of these animals began appearing, Rountrey explained.
This particular set of remains, discovered on Bristle’s land, has since been donated to U-M, and now sits in their research lab where it will dry out. Fisher and Rountrey both explained that the mammoth was preserved in sediment called marl: an organic, rich lime mud that forms in the bottom of ponds.
“What we believe early humans are doing is storing the meat in ponds and coming back to get it later,” said Scott Beld, a field researcher and an archaeologist at the U-M.
This means that the mammoth was most likely hunted down and stored in the pond.
“There have been some experiments that have shown that meat preserved that way in the fall will be edible through the winter, into spring and sometimes even into early summer,” Rountrey said. “It’s sort of the Paleo refrigerator.”
This “refrigerator”, explained by Rountrey, created a sort of anoxic environment and almost pickles the meat floating in the center of the pond. The idea of floating meat is so it is harder for wolves and other animals to get to it.
“When things come out of wet sediment like (fossils), they are retaining a lot of moisture. To avoid getting fractures in the bone, they have to be dried slowly.” Rountrey says, “So this bone still has a collagen matrix, the organic matrix, and that will cause it to shrink a little bit as it dries.” It is preferable that it happens uniformly so there ends up being no fractures in the bone itself.
Dr. Rountrey also explained that the tusks are the most sensitive part of the mammoth, and need to be dried separately. When the fossils were discovered, the tusks were still connected to the skull.
The plans for these fossils, according to Rountrey, is that they’ll be assembled and put on display at U-M once they have had sufficient time to dry.