Larry Lyons: Keep an eye out for mastodons and mammothsPublished 9:54am Wednesday, November 18, 2009
Another sort-of-stone that recently made Michigan’s official list are mastodon fossils, designated in 2002 as our state fossil. If you’re really into fossils you could probably get excited about little pieces of petrified coral and worms and bugs and things but that burns most of us out pretty quick. However, the thought of ancient things the size of elephants in our back yard, now that has more meat to it for us average folks.
Surprisingly, mastodon fossils are not that uncommon here in Michigan. For nearly four million years mastodons roamed about our state in goodly numbers. It was only about 10,000 years ago, just a blink in the eye of eternal time, that mastodons and their distant cousins, woolly mammoths, died out. We don’t know for sure the reason for their extinction. Mastodons and mammoths were cold weather guys and the most accepted theory is that the Ice Age was winding down and it got too hot for them. Yup, good old global warming.
Several recent studies, though, are suggesting that over hunting may have been a significant factor, too. The warming climate allowed humans to move in and there is evidence that they found mastodon steaks mighty tasty. There are numerous ancient petroglyphs (rock carvings) depicting humans hunting mastodons. On a number of occasions stone spear points have been found amongst mastodon bones. Ha, if you think hunting deer with a bow is a sporting challenge try ramming a stick up the tailpipe of a ten foot tall mastodon!
Over 250 mastodon fossils have been found here in Michigan, which puts us near the top of the Midwest states. You probably think of a mastodon fossil like you’ve seen dinosaur fossils on TV, a whole, or nearly so, skeleton neatly laid out and petrified. That’s very rarely the case. Usually it’s just a single bone or tooth or fragment thereof. In fact, to my knowledge only one whole mastodon skeleton has been found in Michigan and that came from right here in Berrien County near Eau Claire. The last I knew it was in storage at Andrews University in St. Joe.
So just what were mastodons and mammoths and what’s the difference? Both are related to modern day elephants though with mastodons it’s a distant kinship. Mastodons were browsers and they lived in mixed pine and hardwood forests like the boreal forests now found across central Canada. All of Michigan’s mastodon fossils come from the southern part of the state so it’s presumed this was the forest structure here at that time. It was probably colder and less forested in northern Michigan and the habitat unsuitable. They stood eight to ten feet tall at the shoulder, about like an African elephant though their skulls were larger than an elephant’s and they were stockier built. The mastodon’s tusks were much longer and more curved than today’s elephant’s. They were adapted to moderately cold weather with a densely haired coat.
Mammoth fossils are much rarer but some have appeared right here in our area. Back in the 1920′s some mammoth fossils were found in Cass County and just last spring one was discovered in Berrien County. Mammoths are much closer related to elephants than mastodons though they inhabited frigid Arctic climates. Unlike the browsing mastodons, mammoths were grazers competing with musk-ox for tundra grasses and lichens. They were a bit larger than mastodons and had even larger tusks. Wear on tusk fossils indicates they used them as snow shovels to get to the grasses underneath. To withstand the extreme cold their shaggy, musk-ox like hair was up to three feet long with dense under fur, hence the common name “woolly” mammoth.
If you’re inclined to go out and find your own mastodon or mammoth you’re best bet is to take to the swamps and bogs. Most have been found while excavating muck, peat or marl.
Larry Lyons writes a weekly outdoor column for Leader Publications. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org