The Indiana State Museum is now the proud recipient of a 12,000 pound mastodon.
Or at least the bones of one.
In early April this year, workers installing a sewer line through a Seymour farm unearthed a cache of massive bones and reported the discovery to Indiana’s DNR, who then contacted the farm’s owners, the Nehrt-Schepman family. Surprised, owner Joe Schepman thought it was fuss over nothing at first, and “it’s a chicken bone or cow bone or something like that”…until he saw the bones for himself.
The family contacted the Indiana State Museum, which immediately sent Ron Richards, senior research curator of paleobiology, who happily confirmed the find as belonging to a mastodon, a family of megafauna (“big animals”) which had once roamed across North and Central America thousands of years ago.
These seven bones—remnants of limbs, a tusk and skull among them—represent a unique find in southern Indiana. The nutrient-rich soil of the southern half of the Hoosier state typically consumes animal remains quickly, leaving little behind. Additionally, Lake Chicago and the Huron-Erie Ice, massive glaciers that flattened northern Indiana during the last Ice Age (and would melt to become the Great Lakes), did not extend below Indianapolis, a region that may have been uncomfortable warm for the heavily-furred mastodon.
After dubbing the discovery “Alfred”, the family recently donated the bones to the Indiana State Museum, which will spend the next year carefully examining and preserving the specimen. The museum promises to offer frequent updates on “Alfred”, including the possibility of a future exhibition featuring this new celebrity of southern Indiana megafauna.
Thanks to the largesse of the Nehrt-Schepman family, museum staff will also search the “Alfred” discovery site. Mastodons lived in herds, making the piece of Seymour farmland a prime candidate for future discoveries.
The Indiana State Museum contains the most diverse collection of mammoth and mastodon bones in the Midwest, and is one of the leading research centers for mastodon studies in the United States. Although frequently used interchangeably, mastodons and mammoths were genetically-diverse species, with mastodons thriving in North and Central America.
Like many indigenous megafauna, mastodons and mammoths died out around 12,000 years ago at the beginning of the Holocene extinction*, largely from overhunting by early homo sapiens (although isolated populations of mammoths limped on until as recently as 1650 BC, after the Great Pyramids of Giza were constructed). Because of human responsibility in their extinction, viable DNA specimens, and a physiological similarity to modern elephants, mastodons and mammoths remain a possibility for “genetic de-extinction“.
*The Holocene extinction, also known as the Sixth Extinction, began approx. 12,000 years ago and still continues today: scientists define it as the thousands of plant and animal species forced into extinction by human activity…including the American mastodon.