Local teachers, U-M crew digging for mastodon bones

Posted at 8:48 AM, Oct 08, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-08 12:05:14-04

It sounds like the plot for Jurassic Park’s next sequel, but it’s a real life adventure unfolding in the Fowler Center’s backyard.

On Saturday, archeologists and excavating equipment descend upon the Mayville alternative educational center to retrieve the skeleton of a prehistoric mammal known as the Mastodon. A discovery stumbled upon two years ago by students on a field trip taking a hike through the Fowler Center’s property.

What initially looked like a large branch or log near the bank of a river, turned out to be the femur of a Mastodon, a pre-historic relative of the elephant. The Fowler Center conducts year-round interactive camps for adults and children with disabilities often incorporating the great outdoors. 

Staff members aren’t scientists, but they knew right away, the bones found by the Tuscola County river bank were too large to be from a deer or cow. So they reached out to the University of Michigan.

Fast forward to today. 

The river water has been diverted and University of Michigan paleontologists armed with special tools and rubber boots prepare to wade into the mud and unearth the remainder of this massive 11,000- to 13,000-year-old creature.

Ten elementary, middle and high school teachers from the thumb area have been chosen to help.

The selected teachers will be put to work digging for mastodon bones, washing them, even helping to map the excavation site and other 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.

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, 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. Fisher will lead the excavation scheduled for the weekends of Oct. 8-9 and 15-16. So far about 300 mastodons and 30 wooly mammoths have been found in Michigan.

In addition to its scientific importance, work at the site will enable teachers from the region to experience the thrill of discovery and to pass it on to their students.

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 identifid 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 and to provide an opportunity for learning by doing.

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.

Preliminary examination of the Fowler site, indicates that early human hunters may have stored mastodon meat at the bottom of a pond that no longer exists.

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.

Once a backhoe digs through the first 6 feet of dirt and silt, the crew will use shovels, trowels and other hand tools to uncover individual bones focusing on a roughly 10 by 10 meter section.

Mastodon and mammoth bones have been recovered in most Michigan counties in the southern half of the Lower Peninsula, he said.