The Hyde Park Mastodon on display at the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca (New York). Although mastodons and mammoths look similar at first glance, they are very different animals.
Paleontological Research Institution and its Museum of the Earth (Ithaca, New York)
During the great Pleistocene ice age, a truly marvelous parade of mammals called North America home—sloths, camels, giant beavers, and massive, short-faced bears, to name a few. And while the woolly mammoth is historically the most iconic of ice age beasts, it was the mammoth's cousin—the American mastodon—that truly ruled North America.
While seemingly identical at first glance, woolly mammoths and American mastodons are strikingly different animals. The high shoulders of the mammoth create a very different silhouette than the horizontal back of the mastodon, for example, and the mammoth's skull possesses a much taller forehead. Another significant difference is found with the teeth—the molars of mastodons possess several large, cone-shaped cusps, while those of mammoths have a series of low ridges. These dental differences suggest different diets; both were herbivores, but they were eating different plants. While mammoths likely fed on grasses, the mastodons were browsing among the trees and shrubs, and these distinct niches allowed the two large mammalian herbivores to coexist without competing for resources. Both were indeed wonderfully adapted for their world, but it was only the American mastodon—Mammut americanum—that thrived across the entire North American continent. Presented here is the story and science of one very special mastodon: PRI 49820, commonly known as the Hyde Park Mastodon.
In August of 1999, Larry Lozier hired an excavator to deepen the pond in the backyard of his home in suburban Hyde Park, New York. A week later, when the excavator had finished, Larry and his wife Sheryl noticed what they thought was a log resting beside the pond. Closer inspection revealed that the object was not a log but an enormous bone. After some initial investigation, Larry realized that his property had produced the remains of a true ice age titan: the mastodon.
Staff and volunteers from Ithaca's Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) arrived to the site upon receiving Larry's invitation. The dirty work began. They drained and explored the pond site in June 2000, but to no avail. Hope remained and a second trip in late August proved more rewarding, and the rest of the skeleton—one of the most complete mastodon skeletons known—was finally located in the bottom of the pond on August 21. It was a good day for science.
Excavation of the Hyde Park Mastodon. The skeleton was nearly 95% complete!
Over the next six weeks, hundreds of volunteers from Vassar College, Cornell University, Dartmouth College, Mount Holyoke University, SUNY New Paltz and The Boston Museum of Science dug into the site. Ninety-five percent of the bones were recovered, including both tusks, the skull, and all major limb bones. The only bones not recovered were those at the end of the tail, the smallest sternum element, and several foot bones.
Once the remains were excavated and cleaned, details emerged. It soon became apparent that the Hyde Park Mastodon was more than just a skeleton; it is essentially the Rosetta Stone of all mastodon skeletons, providing new insight into not only the anatomy but also the lifestyle of these beasts. The skeleton was more than 13,000 years old, and it was that of a mature male. Defects in the tusks suggest battles with other male mastodons at the age of 23. And the animal died at the age of 36. These details and others paint an intimate portrait of these incredible creatures. Today, the original, mounted skeleton of the Hyde Park mastodon can be seen in Ithaca (New York) at PRI's Museum of the Earth.
In addition to producing a phenomenal specimen, the Hyde Park excavation has provided a larger window into the ice age world. Since 2000, the Mastodon Matrix Project™ (MMP) at PRI has sent 1-kilogram bags of dried mud ("matrix") from the Hyde Park excavation—as well as two other mastodon sites in New York—to students, seniors, scouts, families, and countless other groups and individuals around the world. Participants in this "Citizen Science" project pick through the matrix and find 13,000-year-old plant material, snails and clams, and occasional bone fragments and hairs. By "doing" real research, participants gain insight into the process that is science; they understand not only what we know but also how we know it. With the evidence they find, participants can reconstruct the Pleistocene environment where the Hyde Park mastodon roamed, and these results will also create a Pleistocene reference collection at PRI for all researchers to study and help better understand the very recent ice age world.
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Mammoth partner feature articles: Big Bone Lick State Park | Channel Islands NP, Pygmy Mammoth | Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose | Denver Museum of Nature & Science Snowmastodon Project | Fossil Discovery Center of Madera County | Kenosha Public Museums | The Mammoth Site at Hot Springs | Paleontological Research Institution, Museum of the Earth | The Tate Geological Museum at Casper College | Tule Springs Ice Age Park | Waco Mammoth Site