The most complete skeleton of American mastodon in decades has been unearthed in Michigan

Daniel Fisher with his team and the mastodon skull (Photo courtesy Levi Stroud, Michigan News. All rights reserved)
Daniel Fisher with his team and the mastodon skull (Photo courtesy Levi Stroud, Michigan News. All rights reserved)

An American mastodon (Mammut americanum) skeleton considered the most complete among those found since the 1940s was discovered in the region called the Thumb in Michigan, USA. A four-day excavation at the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, near the city of Mayville, conducted by a team led by the University of Michigan with a number of volunteers made it possible to dig up about 75% of the specimen’s complete or nearly complete bones.

Mastodons are a group of primitive animals of the order Proboscidea that lived in the Pliocene and Pleistocene periods especially in North America. Although the various species of mastodon were assigned to a genus called Mammut, those are animals different from mammoths, assigned to their own genus called Mammuthus. They are all related more or less closely with modern elephants.

The American mastodon is the best known among the mastodons and is also the youngest species of its genus, disappeared following the mass extinction that wiped out most of the Pleistocene megafauna including its mammoth cousins. The role of primitive humans in that extinction is still under discussion.

In 2007 the results of the analysis of mitochondrial DNA extracted from a tooth of American mastodon dated between 50,000 and 130,000 years were published. They suggest a divergence between the mastodons and the ancestors of the family Elephantidae, which includes elephants and mammoths, which took place between 24 and 28 million years ago.

Today’s Michigan was among the lands inhabited by mastodons and over the decades about 300 fossil specimens have been found. However, less than 10 of those specimens are as complete as the one just unearthed near Mayville. Professor Daniel Fisher, director of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan, who led the excavation, cited the specimen called Owosso mastodon, discovered in 1944, as the last so complete.

This new model was called the Fowler Center mastodon and its bones were donated to the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology, where they will be studied. According to preliminary estimates, it’s about a male that must have been about 30 at the time of death based on the state of its molar teeth. A radiocarbon dating will be carried out but probably it lived between 11,000 and 13,000 years ago.

An interesting element of the discovery is that this mastodon may have been killed by human beings and its remains buried. Daniel Fisher and his colleagues noticed that its bones are aligned properly while in case of death by natural causes they’re expected to be separated from scavenger animals that fed on its carrion. In ancient times, the area was a lake and humans may have used its bottom, cold and with little oxygen, to help keep the meat from spoiling.

Further analyzes may show signs of human intervention, starting from butchery. It’s a very intriguing possibility that would make this discovery even more important. Digging out the skeleton just finished the first phase of the research on this mastodon specimen.

Michigan University put online a clip about this discovery.

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