ITHACA, N.Y. -- Cornell University scientists are enlisting the help of schoolchildren to analyze tons of stuff that surrounded skeletons of the Chemung mastodons, the two extinct elephant-like creatures that died near the present-day Watkins Glen , N.Y., just as the last Ice Age was ending.
Five-pound bags of matrix (the paleontological term for material around a fossil) are offered to school classes, youth groups and anyone willing to sort though lots of little bones, shells, fossils, plant materials, rocks and clay -- with one warning for the squeamish: The bags might contain 12-millennium-old mastodon dung.
"This is a true mixed bag. No one knows what you'll find in here," says John J. Chiment, the Cornell paleontologist who led university students through the fall 1999 excavation of two well-preserved mastodon skeletons in a Chemung County bog. "We do know from radio-carbon dating that these animals died about 12,100 years ago in a critical period of climate change when the last great glaciers that covered this part of North America were beginning to melt."
Chiment adds, "As we experience another period of global warming, we can't imagine what the mastodons were thinking. But by analyzing the material around these beasts we can learn a lot about environmental conditions at a very interesting point in Earth's history."
Teachers, youth-group leaders and parents interested in receiving mastodon matrix kits -- including lesson plans, instructions on how to sort materials and what to return to Cornell -- can call Cornell's Department of Geological Sciences at (607) 255-1010 or visit the "Chemung Mastodons" web site: http://www.geo.cornell/mastodon.
More than 200 bones from the adult mastodon are now at the Paleontological Research Institution, 1259 Trumansburg Rd., Ithaca, where they -- and the Cornell students and volunteers who work to clean them -- will be part of an ongoing, public exhibit, beginning Jan. 29. The cleaning and preparation process is expected to continue for six months.
After Cornell paleontology students excavated the mastodon skeletons from the bog in a semester-long "dig, "the skeletons were purchased from the landowners with aid from anonymous benefactors of the university. Synthetic polymer casts will be made of the bones of the mastodons: a large specimen estimated to have been 35 years of age when it died and a smaller mastodon of undetermined age. The reproductions will be assembled for display in museums, schools and other sites, including Snee Hall, home of the Cornell geological sciences department. The real bones will be kept in unassembled form at the university for further study.
Bones of the mastodons (and of other animals such as beaver and smaller rodents, and an extinct type of moose) are in such good condition, Chiment explains, because they were virtually pickled in the highly acidic water of the bog. After the animals died, changes in local water flow covered their acidic grave with a layer of clay -- "like the lid on a pickle jar," the paleontologist notes.
They remained sealed until August 1999 when an earthmoving equipment operator who was digging a farm pond spotted the bones, first thought to belong to a woolly mammoth. A systematic excavation began in September with Cornell specialists from several scientific disciplines visiting the site and with students providing most of the hand labor. Paleobotanists, who specialize in ancient plants, are examining evergreen tree needles, plant leaves and stems and even pollen from the Ice Age site. Entomologists are looking at long-buried beetles and other insects. Meanwhile, dendrochronologists, who measure tree rings in old wood, are learning more about climatic conditions when elephants needed woolly coats.
Experts in animal anatomy examined the glossy brown bones as they were pulled from the bog and announced that the remains were of two mastodons. However, a solitary bone of a woolly mammoth bone was found in the bog, leading to speculation that the out-of-place artifact could be a tool once wielded by Paleoindians. Neither that intriguing possibility -- that the mastodons were hunted and butchered by very early Americans -- nor how the mastodons happened to be in a bog has been proved, Chiment cautions.
But when an expert in modern elephants declared that a distinctive heap at the site was almost certainly mastodon dung (the clue was partially digested plants, not the odor, which isn't that nice either) the plot thickened. Now students who sort through the mastodon baggies will want to be alert for ancient fecal matters matter, Chiment says, as well as something a little more pleasant: dead mastodon hair.
"So far we've only found 12 hairs, but if they survived there have to be more," the paleontologist says. Examination by scanning electron microscopes can reveal the identity of hair strands, but even stuff as ordinary as dirt and pebbles will be important to understanding the environmental conditions when the mastodons perished.
Ithaca-area high school students, who are learning computer modeling in the New Visions program at Cornell, will use geological information from the mastodon baggies to complete three-dimensional maps, which were begun by ground-penetrating radar surveys of the bog by Cornell graduate students.
The mastodon matrix study is suitable for students of all ages, Chiment emphasizes.
"When we say K-through-12, that includes kindergarten," says the paleontologist, who has pilot-tested the project in Rochester- and Trumansburg-area schools.
"In fact, kindergarteners are some of our best sorters. They're very diligent. And they love to work with dirt."
Related World Wide Web sites: The following sites provide additional information on this news release. Some might not be part of the Cornell University community, and Cornell has no control over their content or availability.
-- Chemung mastodons homepage: http://www.geo.cornell.edu/mastodon
-- Photos of excavation: http://www.news.cornell.edu/releases/Oct99/mammothpix.html
-- Paleontological Research Institution: http://www.englib.cornell.edu/pri/.
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