MASTODONS AND OTHER FOSSIL ELEPHANTS

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Elephants, like humans, originated in Africa. Like humans, they migrated throughout Africa and subsequently into Europe and Asia. Although modern elephants are represented only by three endangered species, their fossil relatives were once much more diverse and widespread. Throughout the Cenozoic Era (the "Age of Mammals" which consists of earth's last 65 million years), elephants produced a large variety of forms ranging from species three feet tall at the shoulder to others much larger than modern elephants.

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The lateral incisor teeth which were modified to form tusks varied to include straight tusks, enormous curved tusks, curved tusks from the lower jaw, and tusks from both the upper and lower jaws.

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Primitive forms were smaller and displayed various stages of enlarging their lateral incisors to form the tusks of later forms. For example, the Late Eocene genus Moertherium was about the size of a large pig.

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Mastodons were among the browsing elephants which composed the first elephant migration out of Africa. Other related forms included the straight-tusked gomphotheres, such as that depicted below.

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Mastodons weighed 5-6 tons, about the same as modern elephants. They traveled in herds and their skin was coated with thick fur. While mastodons ranged over much of North America, they were most common along the eastern region and seemed to prefer wetland habitats. The cusp-like teeth of the mastodon were adapted for browsing leaves, as were the ancestral elephant teeth. In contrast, mammoths and modern elephants possess ridged teeth which are adapted for grazing on grasses. Georges Cuvier, who is considered the founder of comparative anatomy, identified mastodon fossils from Ohio with the name "Mastodon" (which means "breast tooth") after the raised portions of these browsing teeth which make them so distinct from the teeth of mammoths.

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Because the difference between mammoths and mastodons was not originally appreciated, the scientific name for the American mastodon is Mammut americanus. Mammoths and modern elephants evolved in Africa long after the mastodon migration. Mammoths can easily be distinguished from mastodons because their long forelegs make them much taller at the shoulder. Mammoths also possess more highly domed skulls, enormous curved tusks, and grooved teeth adapted for grazing. Mammoths are depicted in the following photos.

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During the series of Ice Ages which occurred over the past 1.5 million years, two North American ice sheets formed: one originating in the Northwest Rocky Mountains and another originating around the Hudson Bay. When the glaciations reached their greatest extent, these two ice sheets joined and formed an ice area of 6 million square miles-an area greater than the ice of Antarctica and possibly representing the largest ice sheet to ever form in earth's history. Because so much water was locked up in ice sheets, sea level dropped an estimated 300 feet. As a result, many regions which are currently covered by ocean were exposed such as an ice-free Bering Land Bridge which connected Alaska and Siberia. Mastodons (and many other species) migrated into North America and some eventually reached South America as well. The last of the glaciations began about 100,000 years ago and ended only about 10,000 years ago. The last mastodons are thought to have gone extinct between 9,000 and 12,000 years ago, probably because of the dramatic climate change associated with the end of an Ice Age and because of hunting from early Americans which had arrived in the New World prior to 10,000 years ago. A number of sites, primarily in the Southwest, indicate that paleo-indians hunted these giant herbivores (Kurten, 1988).

Fossils in general, and elephant fossils specifically, have played a role in determining how humans viewed the natural world around them. In the past, some mammoth tusks were depicted as originating from unicorn-like animals. In the late 1600s and early 1700s, descriptions of Russian mammoths identified mammoth remains as the "behemoth" mentioned in the Book of Job. It is thought that "mammoth" is actually derived from the word "behemoth". Elephant teeth were often found around Mediterranean during ancient times and were often interpreted as belonging to giants. Many linked them to the accounts of giants in the book of Genesis, humans which died in the Noachian Flood, or to the giant bones of specific saints (such as St. Christopher or St. Vincent) (Cohen, 2002; Carrington, Wendt, Semonin). A 16th century debate over whether or not to give a Christian burial to mammoth bones in Switzerland was resolved with the argument that the giant "human" would have been a heathen (Lister, 1994). The first mastodon remains were found in North America in 1705 and were described by the puritan philosopher Cotton Mather in 1712. Cotton Mather identified them as giant humans who drowned in the Noachian Flood. The notion of giants in North America helped to bolster American pride since it refuted European claims that the natural state of the New World represented only a degenerate condition of that which existed in the Old World. It is thought that the first correct identification of extinct elephant bones was made by early 18th century African slaves living in California (Kurten, 1988).

Several of America's founding fathers were interested in fossils. The first mastodon remains of Orange County were found in 1780 which George Washington viewed while encamped in Newburgh. George Washington obtained a mastodon tooth. Benjamin Franklin's analysis of mastodon teeth demonstrated their adaptation for plant material and thus contradicted popular tales of fierce, carnivorous mastodons. Thomas Jefferson had taken an interest in fossils and was the first to describe the ground sloth named after him, the Jefferson sloth Megalonyx jeffersoni (Kurten, 1988).

We now know that mastodons, like so many other animals of the fossil record, are extinct. The idea of extinction was repulsive to many scholars of the past. It wasn't until the late 1700s to early 1800s that it became generally accepted that extinction was even possible. Thomas Jefferson was a proponent of the organization of life into a "Great Chain of Being" in which no link in the chain could ever become extinct without threatening the entire system. Jefferson warned Lewis and Clark that they might encounter living mastodons as they set off to explore the Louisiana Territory.

In May 1972, a mastodon skeleton was found near the town of Sugar Loaf, Orange County by Frank Pickul who was excavating a drainage ditch in a black dirt farm near the border of Warwick and Chester. The excavating machine stalled when it struck the head of the mastodon. The owners of the property, the Sorbello family, donated the specimen to the Incorporated Orange County Chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association (OCCNYSAA) who completed the excavation. The skeleton was of an adult male which once stood 20 feet long and just over 8 feet tall. He walked through Orange County almost ten thousand years ago (the carbon indicated a date of 9860 years plus/minus 225 years, about the time when the last mastodons are thought to have become extinct). Humans were known to have inhabited this area by this time (because of a site at Dutchess Quarry Cave dated at 12,580 years ago) but there is no evidence that this animal had been killed by humans. Its remains were preserved at the bottom of a glacial lake where it either drowned or into which it fell upon its death from other causes. All of the original bones were found with the exception of a scapula and humerus. The specimen was named Sugar and erected in 1976 in the Biotech Building of Orange County Community College. The original tusks were damaged and are on display in a case next to Sugar. Hollow casts of the tusks were made for the mounted specimen. Sugar is unusual in that he possessed short tusks protruding from the lower jaw which are more typically associated with the adults of Asiatic mastodons and young male American mastodons. Beginning in 2002, the Agassiz Society led ongoing efforts to raise money for Sugar's restoration.

Thirty-eight mastodon specimens have been discovered in Orange County. Mastodon specimens from Orange County have been sent to Germany, Philadelphia, Baltimore, New York City (including the Warren mastodon), Albany (in the NY State Museum), and London (the latter of which was moved to Philadelphia and later destroyed in a fire). Remains of more than 100 mastodons and 15 mammoths have been found in the state of New York (although none of the mammoths have been found in Orange County; the Hudson River apparently represented a barrier for them).

Mastodons are not only a beautiful relic of Orange County's past, their remains testify that once-dominant species can suffer a decline in numbers and even become extinct. Apparently, mastodons were unable to survive in a world whose challenges included drastic climate change and unsustainable exploitation by humans. We are currently living in a period of extinction which is estimated to be as severe as that which ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. It is estimated that about 100 species become extinct each day, although virtually all of these species would be unfamiliar to you since they are rare to begin with, live in distant habitats such as the tropical rainforests of Latin America, and are much more likely to be invertebrates or plants than birds or mammals. Extinct species that have inhabited New York in the past several centuries include the Passenger Pigeon, Eastern Bison, sea mink, heath hen, Townsends Finch, and the Eastern Wapiti. Other species have become extinct from other regions of the U.S. including the badlands bighorn sheep, Oregon bison, Carolina parakeet, Florida wolf, and long-eared kit fox. Many species on the current Endangered Species List are likely to become extinct if they have not already done so.

Without a dedicated effort to preserve biodiversity, countless modern species will have no place in earth's future other than to have their remains adorn hallways and fill museum shelves. While Sugar bears witness to extinctions of the past, he also reminds us that our actions will determine the extent of the extinctions of our times.

 

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