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Mammals, landscapes, extinctions...not necessarily in that order
Updated: 22 hours 12 min ago

History, Salt, and MASTODONS!!!

Tue, 06/27/2017 - 12:19
[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 […]

How Many Mammoths?

Thu, 04/21/2016 - 19:15
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 […]

The Elephant in the corner of the room (and other thoughts on dating the Pleistocene extinctions)

Tue, 02/24/2015 - 11:47
Telling time is important to scientists who work in the deep past. As humans, we find it difficult to tell time beyond the scale of a lifetime. Last week runs into last month. Those months build up into years and decades. To those of us born in the 1970s, 25 years ago (1990—pre-internet) is half […]

Excuses, excuses, excuses…

Fri, 02/20/2015 - 23:19

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.


Natural History Collections for future Ecosystems

Sun, 03/30/2014 - 18:50
Last week a bunch of the natural science curators here at the Illinois State Museum presented a poster at a small conference (downloadable PDF here). Normally, a conference poster isn’t a big deal or all that unique, but this may be a first. The theme of this year’s conference was “Taking stock before the connection” and was concerned…

Midwestern Mammoths and Mastodonts: The M-cubed project

Sat, 02/01/2014 - 12:18
Note: This is the first post in a series focused on a 4-year, National Science Foundation funded project to look at the extinction of Mammoths and Mastodonts in the Midwest.  For the last few years we’ve been traveling…a lot. We started a project in 2011 to better understand 1) when mammoths and mastodonts went extinct,…

Bats in the Attic

Sat, 01/18/2014 - 14:08
A few nights ago, just as I was stumbling to bed, I heard something. It was a distinct fluttering sound–occasionally accented by a light thump. It was something I was able to place, all too well. A bat flying around our bedroom. Resigned to late-night adrenaline, I found an old blanket, wrapped the critter up,…

Fossils in the round: 3D scanning and printing

Sun, 01/12/2014 - 18:10
Note: It is January 2014 and this blog has been sitting stagnant for quite awhile. Over the next few months, I have a number of posts planned. Most are about the paleontology/paleoecology of Ice Age mammals, but I’m planning a few that will focus on methods and documentation–especially for the amateur community. So stay tuned!…

Midwestern Mastodon Bonebeds: Death Traps and Salt Licks

Sat, 02/25/2012 - 17:05
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,…


Tue, 02/14/2012 - 23:18
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…