The American Mastodon

Mammut

Mammut americanum

Located in the Reed Hall of Science lobby, directly across the sidewalk from Strickler Planetarium, you'll find our oldest Olivet student - the Mastodon.

History

The American Mastodon roamed North America from at least 3.75 million to 10,000 years ago. Mastodons, along with mammoths and modern elephants, are members of the Order Proboscidea. As adults, they stood between 8-11 feet at the shoulder and about fifteen feet from the base of the tusks to the root of their tail. They weighed between 4-6 tons. Mastodons were large elephant-like animals with heavy shaggy coats and long up-curving upper jaw. Their skull had a flattened brow ridge.

Although a relative to mammoths, they differed from them physically. Mastodons were shorter in overall height and had shorter and thicker legs than their mammoth relatives. Mastodons also possessed rather primitive teeth. Instead of the flat grinding surface composed of highly convoluted ridges of enamel that characterize the teeth of mammoths and modern elephants, mastodon teeth are characterized by rounded and pointed enamel-covered cones and close-spaced roots. These teeth would have been well-suited to clipping or crushing twigs, leaves, and stems.

The nature of the teeth and gut contents indicate that the mastodons were forest-dwelling animals that browsed on leaves, twigs, shoots, and other foliage. The structure of their limbs and the close association of mastodon remains with pond and shallow lake deposits indicate that they possibly spent a large amount of time walking through shallow lakes, ponds, and swamps.

More distant relatives of the mastodons, mammoths, elephants, and other proboscideans are the manatees (sea cows) and hyraxes which all shared a common ancestor that lived some 50 million years ago within Africa.

Mastodon remains have been found in North America, Africa, Europe, and Asia, and are often remarkably well preserved. They became extinct approximately 10,000 years ago. Today, paleontologists are trying to determine the cause(s) of their extinction.

Heads Up

Our mastodon is estimated to have lived 10-15 thousand years ago. It likely weighed 4-5 tons and stood eleven feet tall. This skull was found in a cornfield, six feet under ground, near Belfountain, Ohio, in 1962.

The excavation was supervised by D.J. Strickler. The reconstruction took place under the care of W.E. Eigsti. Dr. Strickler was a professor of biology at Olivet for 49 years. Olivet’s planetarium is named in his honor. W.E. Eigsti was a curator at The Field Museum in Chicago, Illinois, for 15 years.

After several decades on display, our mastodon skull was in need of restoration. Lisa Bergwall and Jim Holstein, Fossil Preparator’s at The Field Museum agreed to come to Bourbonnais to work on the skull.

Lisa and Jim’s experience with fossil restoration is impressive. Among many projects, they were preparators for "Sue," one of the most famous T. rex fossils. They also worked on a skull that is featured in "Monsters of Madagascar" an article published in the August, 2000, issue of National Geographic.

As part of the Field Museum staff they also worked on the earliest known dinosaur bone. This bone is estimated to be about 230 million years old.

Lisa has a B.S. in Geology from Western Illinois University. Jim has a B.A. in Anthropology from University of Illinois, Chicago. Their advice to kids interested in this profession: "Learn anatomy, biology and zoology. Read and learn as much as possible about fossils."

Credits

Illinois State Museum, 16 Dec. 2000,
http://www.museum.state.il.us/index.html

Heinrich, Paul V., 16 Dec. 2000,
http://www.intersurf.com/~heinrich/mastodon1.html

Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000, “Mastodon"