A mammoth of a fossil display may be on its way to the University’s Museum of Paleontology — as soon as paleontologists conduct further research and prepare the newly discovered bones for exhibition.
A team of University researchers excavated the remains of a prehistoric woolly mammoth last week at a dig site near Chelsea, Mich. The owner of the site, Chelsea farmer James Bristle, donated the bones to the Museum of Paleontology and the specimens began arriving in Ann Arbor this week.
Led by Daniel Fisher, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology and director of the Museum of Paleontology, the team uncovered nearly 20 percent of the animal’s skeleton, including a complete skull with tusks and teeth, vertebrae, ribs, pelvis and shoulder blades.
The mammoth is estimated to be an adult male that lived between 11,700 and 15,000 years ago.
Bristle came across part of the pelvis bone when trying to install a drainage pipe in his field. He contacted the University team, who excavated what they could in a day, though they noted that there might still be some parts they may have missed.
Fisher said the find is significant because it may alter the date when paleontologists and historians believe humans first lived in North America.
“We know that humans were here in North America by at least 13,000 years ago. The mammoth shows signs of human association way before that,” he said. “The age of this mammoth could very easily be very old, and if we buy this theory of human association, then we can push back the time (humans) were here.”
The mammoth tusks, which contain growth layers, serve as a kind of record of the mammoth’s lifespan, according to Fisher. With further study, the team will be able to estimate the year the mammoth was born.
The team’s preliminary hypothesis on how the mammoth came to be buried in Chelsea is that early humans were storing its remains in a pond for later consumption.
That would also mean primitive humans would have had the technology and capabilities to hunt the large creatures, which has been the case in other prehistoric animal findings in Michigan.
Signs of human interaction would include cut marks, which would be found only after the bones are washed and cleaned.
The team also found a stone flake tool among the bones, which, Fisher hypothesized, could have been used by humans to cut mammoth bone.
Michael Cherney, a research assistant in the Museum of Paleontology and a Ph.D. candidate in geology sciences, said mammoth findings are comparatively less common in lower Michigan, noting that mastodon findings are actually more common locally.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, mastodons and woolly mammoths are two distinct shaggy-haired species, though they are both considered proboscideans, which are generally described as species of animals with tusks and trunks.
“There are around 300 mastodon skeletons recorded for Michigan,” Cherney said. “There’s only on the order of 30 mammoth sites, and most sites only include a few bones here and there.”
Cherney and Fisher both stressed that there is much work to be done in terms of dating and researching the recovered bones, but the significance of the find is already apparent.
“Just the fact that it has tusks and teeth, it’s a significant find that it has those things, and they’re preserved well enough that we should be able to say a lot more,” Cherney said. “If the date turns out to be very old, it could be quite significant, but it is hard to say at this point.”