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History, Salt, and MASTODONS!!!

[It has been a long time since my last post. As many of you know, a lot has happened in the last two years. Most significantly, we moved from the Illinois State Museum to East Tennessee State University. I’ve wondered whether the concept of this blog still applies in our new environment. Excavations over the last few weeks have re-assured me, it does. Hopefully many more will follow]

2017-06-23 09.29.03

Gratuitous picture of a Saltville mastodon tooth.

Last Friday we wrapped up three weeks of excavations in Saltville, VA. This is significant for a couple of reasons. First, we’ve been working in this locality within the valley for a number of years. To date, we have found a variety of large Pleistocene fauna that include: Mastodon (Mammut), Mammoth (Mammuthus), Short Faced Bear (Arctodus), Stag Moose (Cervalces), and Helmeted Muskox (Bootherium). However, there is another, deeper layer of ecosystem understanding to be had at the site. Also present are the remains of beetles and insects, plenty of plant remains, large dung boluses (mastodon?), possible footprint casts, and the bones of small mammals, fish, and amphibians. This is a rich site, and despite having worked the area for the last decade(+) we still have many questions that drive research forward.

Well #69. Mathieson Alkali Works, Saltville VA.

Collapsed well where remains of extinct fauna were found in 1917. O.A. Peterson.

However, there is a second reason why Friday was significant, it marked the centenary of scientific research conducted in the valley. In June of 1917 a well collapse prompted a call to the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh PA with a report of large bones. On the 23rd of June, O.A. Peterson responded, collecting bits and pieces of mastodon (from adult molars, to tiny juvenile chin tusks), giant ground sloth, stag moose, and horse. Although bones of extinct species had been documented in the valley before (most notably in Thomas Jefferson’s natural history classic, “Notes on the State of Virginia“), this was the first time these remains were collected and ultimately deposited in a museum for scientific study (Peterson, 1917).

See Peterson’s paper here:

At the time, this was a one-off find. However, industrial-scale salt mining continued, and bones of Pleistocene fauna continued to be found. Researchers from Virginia Polytechnic (now Virginia Tech) and the Smithsonian Institution followed up on Peterson’s work in the 1960s with a multi-disciplinary project to examine not only the large fauna from the valley, but also also in-depth discussions of the vegetation history (via pollen analyses) and geology.  This project also added mammoths, caribou, and bison (although not directly from excavated deposits) to the list of taxa from the valley.

Beginning in the 1970s an Abingdon (VA) geologist, Charlie Bartlett, became interested in the Saltville area. Bartlett taught geology at the nearby Emory & Henry University, where he and his students developed an interest in mastodons. Excavations in 1980-81 undertaken in collaboration with Jerry McDonald (then at the Smithsonian) recovered a partial skeleton of a male muskox. This study remains an intriguing venture into the taphonomy (e.g., carnivore modification) of extinct large herbivores in the valley. It also presents a modern take on valley geomorphology, suggesting major late Pleistocene changes occurred in the hydrology of the valley (Bartlett and McDonald, 1983).


Vertebral column of Saltville Muskox. From McDonald and Bartlett, 1983.

Jerry McDonald continued regular field excavations in the valley through the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, we learned more about the vertebrate paleontology (McDonald, 1986), paleohydrology (McDonald, 1985), and paleoecology (McDonald, 1984; Delcourt and Delcourt, 1986) of the valley, ultimately culminating in a detailed report of excavations, with the blockbuster conclusion that the Saltville valley was home to Pre-Clovis groups over 14,000 years ago (McDonald, 2000). Although still highly debated, McDonald’s work had a lasting impact on the local community. Through his efforts to promote the importance of the site, the Museum of the Middle Appalachians (or “MOMA”) was formed, and currently occupies a building on main street, only blocks from the well fields. Today, MOMA interprets valley history, from the Ice Age through the modern age. This small-town hub was home to extinct beasts, but was also “Salt Capital of the Confederacy” during the Civil War (2 battles were fought here), and a significant source of industrially-mined salt since the 1880s.

Subsequent paleontological work in the valley was performed by Ralph Eshelman (1999-2003), and beginning in 2003, Steven Wallace (ETSU). The Center of Excellence in Paleontology at ETSU (primarily under the direction of Blaine Schubert, but also including Jim Mead, Brian Compton, and now–me) continues to conduct excavations in the Saltville valley. The theme of large mammal taphonomy continued in 2009 when Schubert and Wallace reported a scavenged mammoth carcass from the valley. Recent research has focused on the paleoecology of deposits in localities in the central part of the valley (forthcoming).

But the last 3 weeks were my FIRST sustained visit to Saltville. This small community tucked away in a narrow valley in the southern uplands of Clinch Mountain VA is unique. The folks that live here are connected to their history, and protective of their rich paleontological heritage. They value the museum and have invested heavily in presenting the history of the valley in a rich, multi-facetted way. Every day we were on-site we had a slow but constant flow of visitors asking about the most recent finds and chatting about new questions we were chasing answers to. For example, when we told them about the potential for DNA recovery from mastodon teeth in the underlying gravels, they asked follow-up questions about implications for late Pleistocene extinctions and modern elephant conservation. These folks are very engaged, and a pleasure to work with. We couldn’t continue what we do without them.


Blaine Schubert discussing recent Saltville research with 2017 SEAVP attendees.

This summer, to some degree, also offered a taste of the future. Bernard Means (Virginia Commonwealth University–Virtual Curation Lab) spent a few days on-site 3D scanning specimens in the museum, offering a high-tech view of the future of collections (a statement that should be punctuated by lasers). Staff from the Virginia Museum of Natural History were on-site for many days to help with the excavation, showing the highly collaborative way that the modern sciences advance (and providing valuable regional context on the archaeology and geology to a Appalachian newbie such as myself). We hosted a field trip for paleontologists who were attending the Southeastern Association of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting at the Gray Fossil Site. We began to lay the groundwork for future spatial pyrotechnics (plans are to bring in the drones this fall) and isotopic work on the large fauna. And a very successful kids’ dig day points to the potential of more substantive collaborations with local educators.

Stay tuned. Despite 100 years of science in the valley, there are still plenty of questions to answer and things to do. Next year we’ll be back to begin the second century of paleontological science at Saltville!

Added bonus…an annotated 3D model of Saltville, locality SV5/7 as it appeared on the final day of excavations.


Cooper, B. N. (1964). New fossil finds at Saltville, Virginia. Mineral Industries Journal, 10(4), 1-3.

Jefferson, T. (1999). Notes on the State of Virginia. Penguin.

McDonald, J. N., & Bartlett Jr, C. S. (1983). An associated musk ox skeleton from Saltville, Virginia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 2(4), 453-470.

McDonald, J. N. (2000). An outline of the Pre-Clovis archeology of SV-2, Saltville, Virginia, with special attention to a bone tool dated 14,510 yr BP. Virginia Museum of Natural History.

McDonald, J. N. (1984). Paleoecological investigations at Saltville, Virginia. Current Research in the Pleistocene, 1, 77-78.

McDonald, J. N. (1985). Late Quaternary deposits and paleohydrology of Saltville Valley, southwest Virginia. Current Research in the Pleistocene, 2, 123-124.

Peterson, O. A. (1917). A Fossil-bearing Alluvial Deposit in Salt-ville Valley, Virginia. Carnegie Museum.

Ray, C. E., Cooper, B. N., & Benninghoff, W. S. (1967). Fossil mammals and pollen in a late Pleistocene deposit at Saltville, Virginia. Journal of Paleontology, 608-622.

Schubert, B. W., & Wallace, S. C. (2009). Late Pleistocene giant short‐faced bears, mammoths, and large carcass scavenging in the Saltville Valley of Virginia, USA. Boreas, 38(3), 482-492.

How Many Mammoths?

Hebior Mammoth

Hebior Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) on display at the Kenosha Public Museum. Collections housed at the Milwaukee Public Museum. Image by Chris Widga and Stacey Lengyel. Used with permission from the KPM.

To paraphrase Larry Agenbroad, the former director of the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, SD, Mammoth taxonomy is confused, and confusing. And it has been this way for a long while. Henry Fairfield Osborn, a giant of North American vertebrate paleontology dedicated decades of his life (and that of his assistants) to the production of a 1600-page, 2-volume, tome describing the Proboscidea, published posthumously in 1942.  Through a specimen-by-specimen analysis, he described 16 species of North American mammoths across 3 genera. Since that time, North American mammoth species have undergone significant pruning, with most paleontologists recognizing 4-5 species across North America: M. meridionalis (Southern Mammoth), M. columbi (Columbian Mammoth), M. primigenius (Woolly Mammoth), and M. exilis (Channel Island Pygmy Mammoth). A fifth species, M. jeffersonii (Jeffersonian Mammoth) was considered an intermediate form showing characteristics of both Columbian and Woolly mammoths.

The story went something like this…Around 1.5 million years ago, the Southern Mammoth (M. meridionalis) emigrated to North America, settling along the west coast. Shortly after, the Eurasian Steppe Mammoth (M. trogontherii) joined its trunked brethren. Both were found in early deposits in the Anza Borrego Desert of southern California (and potentially the Great Plains and Florida). The Southern Mammoth died out or was swallowed up by the more successful Columbian forms, which radiated throughout most of North America. The BIG mammoths that fill western museums, like Archie at the University of Nebraska and the Angus Mammoth at Denver were initially considered to be too big to be run-of-the-mill Columbian mammoths and were anointed “Imperial” mammoths. Woollies migrated down the front of the continental ice sheets late in the game, during the Wisconsin glaciation sometime in the last 100 thousand years. Jeffersonian mammoths were the love-children of Woolly and Columbian mammoths. And the Island Pygmies were early Columbian mammoths that swam the channel or wandered across a land bridge.

This was a great story. It had action and explanation. And it was the framework that most museums used to explain their monstrous Mammuthus mounts (or miniscule mounts, in the case of the Pygmy Mammoth on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History). But two papers in the last 6 months have shown that the reality is actually much more complicated…and interesting.

The first paper was a study by Adrian Lister and Andrei Sher. There are few scientists who have seen as many mammoths as Lister (who literally wrote the book on the subject). In a project that spanned decades, Lister and Sher visited many North American collections housing early mammoths. From California to Florida and everywhere in between. They concluded that the earliest mammoths on the continent were, in fact, not M. meridionalis. Rather they were an odd assortment of poorly prepared/reconstructed material, individuals with heavily worn teeth, or simply Columbian mammoths from an early context. The clincher was that they had an excellent sample of Old World Southern Mammoths that didn’t overlap with any of the North American specimens. Any-of-them…

The second paper (Poinar et al. in press) came out this week. A few years ago, we hosted a sharp graduate student from McMaster University (Ontario) who was interested in our midwestern mammoths, Jake Enk. I bought him lunch. We talked at length about messed up mammoth taxonomy. Normal stuff. Ultimately, Jake sampled ~30 teeth for genetic studies (like this one), then moved on to major collections of Mammuthus in Nebraska, Denver, UC-Berkeley, and Santa Barbara. Given the success rate of previous aDNA studies, we expected that one or two of these specimens might actually give us some decent data. To my surprise, Jake was able to extract complete mitochondrial genomes from 67 mammoths from south of the Laurentide ice. An even bigger surprise, was that they were all chips off of the same block. They weren’t even different species.

Well…this was a surprise/not surprise. We had been looking at this issue through the morphology of midwestern mammoth teeth and found that there was a significant amount of overlap between different “species” and shared our data with Jake. The conventional wisdom that Columbian mammoth teeth were distinct from woolly and Jeffersonian mammoth teeth just wasn’t holding up. You could see multiple morphs within a small geographic area–and we had the dates to prove that we weren’t seeing the influx of “new populations” through time. Things seemed to get really complicated in ecotonal areas, like Iowa. During the Last Glacial Maximum Iowa was a transitional landscape between the more open steppic grasslands to the west (“Columbian” mammoth territory) and the forest steppe (think Taiga) of the east (“Jeffersonian” and “Woolly” Mammoth territory). We hit collections at the University of Iowa, Iowa State Historical Society, Putnam Museum (Davenport) and the Sanford Museum (Cherokee) hard, hoping to figure out where one species left off and the other began. We ended up scratching our heads over animals that had jaws that looked like Woolly mammoths, but teeth that were Columbian…or jaws that were Jeffersonian on one side, but Woolly on the other. We found localities like the mammoth bonebed in Mahaska County, that had one jaw that looked like a Columbian mammoth, but two more that were dead ringers for big Woollies. These were exactly the morphological patterns that we might expect if a) Mammoths were a single biological population capable of inter-breeding and producing viable offspring, and 2) the midwestern mammoths were in the middle of the mess, showing characters of both populations.

So do these different “species” of mammoths mean anything? Why bother measuring teeth if all mammoths are the same? After the initial shock wore off I had plenty of time to think about this. As a morphologist, the idea that we are dealing with a single, morphologically variable population is actually…well…kind of liberating. Now we can explore how certain characters may have been selected for in different environments. We can think about functional morphology, broad-scale impacts of landscape/diet on body-size, or the morphological effects of introgressing populations. Before…the pygmy mammoths of California’s Channel Islands were an unrelated off-shoot of my midwestern behemouths, perhaps responding to nutritional stress and landscape changes in very different ways than their mainland cousins. Now, they are just another mammoth population that is using the same set of morphological and genetic tools to deal with the situation at hand. And we can learn from that.

Mammoths are fun to think about, even when we don’t know all of the answers. These papers (and a third that Jeff Saunders and I are hoping to finish up this week) illustrate the importance of retaining natural history collections in museums. A decade ago, there would have been no chance of getting this degree of genetic recovery out of fossil mammoths south of the ice. Even for “traditional” studies of morphology the only way to get sample sizes large enough to say meaningful things about the biogeography of a creature is to rely on the materials collected and accumulated through many generations.



Excuses, excuses, excuses…

This blog has been *sleeping* for a few months. Why, you might ask dear reader? Well…the last few months could best be described as schizophrenic. The projects that we’ve been working on are pretty diverse, and they’ve all been progressing, more or less, synchronously. So stay tuned for more details. In the meantime, here’s a rundown of what’s in the hopper.

1. Mammoths and mastodons. Our extinction project is in its last year. The dates are rolling in and we have some very interesting results. We’ve narrowed down the error estimate around the actual time of mastodon extinction to ~250 years. They blip out in the Midwest just as the Younger Dryas, a return to glacial conditions, is getting underway ~12.9 ka. Although mammoths are probably extirpated at about the same time (the last mammoth dates are just a few hundred years earlier than the last mastodon dates), their pattern of extinction is much different. Mastodons go out with a bang. In the last few hundred years prior to extinctions, mastodons are still distributed widely throughout the Midwest. In fact, many sites dating to this time period have multiple animals in them (including Boney Spring, MO, with ~31 mastodons). Mammoths however, are fewer and farther between by the time the terminal Pleistocene rolls around. Although they are here, shoulder to shoulder with mastodons, they are not present in high numbers.

2. MORE Mammoths and Mastodons. Although our project is focused on the extinction of these beasts, we’ve also been able to document quite a bit of morphological diversity in mammoths and mastodons. What do these patterns mean? Are they due to a complex evolutionary history? Or to local environmental pressures? Are there chronoclines (shape and size changes through time) that might give us insight into adaptive strategies?

3. Even MORE Mammoths and Mastodons…and isotopes. We’ve been tweaking our new micromill technique to drill very tiny holes in mammoth teeth. The importance of this research is that it gives us a seasonal-scale picture of the life of a mammoth over the course of a few years. We can see what it was eating and where it was moving (IF it was moving).

4. 3D scanning and printing. In June we received our first 3D printer. In August we received our second. We’ve been working to test the dozens of 3D scans we’ve done over the last year or so. We’re hoping to post them to a gallery soon.

5. Going to the dogs. Illinois is home to one of the most complete records of early dogs in North America. A few years back, we started re-analyzing dog remains from the Koster and Stilwell sites in western Illinois for insight into the lives of these early dogs. I’ll definitely be talking more about them in the next few months.

6. Just batty. Finally, no blog post would be complete without some mention of the bat paleontology that we’ve been working on. Bat guano. Bat bones. Bat ecology.

From mega to micro. Stay tuned for more updates.


Midwestern Mastodon Bonebeds: Death Traps and Salt Licks

Big mastodon sites have been getting a lot of press lately. In particular, the Snowmass site high up in the Colorado Rockies has produced over 30 mastodons over the course of two field seasons. This site–making national news on a regular basis over the last year–was a pond where the bones of mastodons, mammoths, bison, and ground sloths (to name a few) were found by the dozens. The Snowmastodon site (as it has been called) was featured on Nova a few weeks ago. Kirk Johnson (Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and Dan Fisher (University of Michigan) suggest that the high number of mastodon bones in debris flows are the result animals trapped on the sandy shores of the pond during earthquake liquefaction, and that humans may be partly responsible for a partially articulated mammoth in the upper levels. This is a fascinating site, and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes from the scientific investigations…which have only begun.

However, the Snowmastodon site puts in my mind a few other big mastodon bonebeds. The Boney Spring site in the western Ozarks was excavated by crews from the Universities of Arizona and Missouri, and the Illinois State Museum in the 1970s. The Ozark project explored a number of important paleontological and archaeological localities. Boney Spring itself was the latest of three major paleontological sites spanning the last ~150,000 years. In all, 31 mastodons were excavated from a single component of the site, dating to ~16,000 years ago. This assemblage includes animals of all ages and sexes, including a very large bull, who remains the largest North American mastodon on record. Although dominated by mastodons, the Boney Spring assemblage includes a minor number of other critters, including: 4 Paramylodon harlani (Ground Sloth), 2 giant beavers (Castoroides), horse, and tapir.  Although small mammals are well represented, no large carnivores were present in the assemblage. Long-time ISM curator Jeff Saunders suggested that this concentration of mastodons was the result of environmental conditions–specifically, a severe drought which caused dying mastodons to congregate around the only source of permanent water, Boney Spring.

Another big Midwestern mastodon site is the “Birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology” itself, Big Bone Lick, Kentucky. Located in north-central Kentucky near the Ohio River, BBL has been the site of paleontological investigations since the 1730s. By the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson became interested in the locality, tasking William Clark (of Lewis and Clark fame) to collect fossils for him. Mastodons figured prominently in early collections from BBL. The locality was investigated periodically throughout the 19th century by paleontological notables, but became a research backwater by the early 1900s. In 1962, University of Nebraska paleontologist C. Bertrand Schultz returned to BBL for five field seasons, the first modern paleontological excavations to occur at the site. Schultz and his collaborators discovered that the BBL locality had a complex geological history. Mastodons and other Pleistocene fauna were recovered cheek-to-jowl with bison. But these bison were not the large-horned animals contemporaneous with Pleistocene megafauna, but rather short-horned late Holocene forms. Today, the locality is a state park with an on-site visitor center and full-sized Pleistocene dioramas.  Bones still erode out of the creek banks…


Welcome to my world! This is a research blog about what we do every day at the Illinois State Museum. I am a vertebrate paleontologist who specializes in Ice Age mammals. My research, and much of our museum outreach focuses on the rich record of Quaternary vertebrates in the Midwest and Great Lakes area. Why do we need another blog about giant extinct animals you ask? Doesn’t Switek already take care of that? Believe it or not, modern paleontology is a field whose breadth is huge! Here at the Illinois State Museum, many of the natural history curators are part of the Landscape History program. This describes what we do fairly well. The botanists look at vegetation change and the immediate impact of climate changes on the landscape. Paleontologists and zoologists work with ancient and modern critters, respectively. Archaeologists and historians look at how people used the landscape. Most importantly, we all work together to piece together how past ecosystems work. Just like we can’t understand the dynamics of human populations without understanding their physical environment, it is increasingly evident that we can’t understand vegetation or faunal communities in isolation either.

But why a blog? And why “Backyard Paleo?” Well, I work at the Illinois State Museum. That means that my research and activities are geographically focused on the Midwest. I don’t head west every summer to dig dinosaurs. I don’t travel to Africa to look for human ancestors. It is my job to explore the nooks and crannies of midwestern creekbanks, road-cuts, gravel quarries, and yes, backyards. In reality, there is really cool paleo almost anywhere–you just need to slow down and look closely. This blog allows me to show you (oh loyal reader) what we do, and why it’s important.

At least for the next few months I’ll probably be blogging about Quaternary mammals–with a particular affinity for mammoths and mastodons. This is because we’re in the middle of a big project to understand how and why these massive creatures went extinct at the end of the Ice Age, and frankly, there are a lot of stories to tell about elephants. So stay tuned, and maybe you’ll learn something about YOUR backyard.

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