Kyle Middleton, executive director, Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, arranges several of the mastodon bones found at the camp in Mayville. Scientists from the University of Michigan plan a complete excavation during two weekends in October. (Photo by John Cook)

Mastodon bones near Mayville: University of Michigan scientists plan dig

Kyle Middleton, executive director, Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, arranges several of the mastodon bones found at the camp in Mayville. Scientists from the University of Michigan plan a complete excavation during two weekends in October. (Photo by John Cook)
Kyle Middleton, executive director, Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, arranges several of the mastodon bones found at the camp in Mayville. Scientists from the University of Michigan plan a complete excavation during two weekends in October. (Photo by John Cook)

Paleontologists from the University of Michigan plan to unearth the remains of a mastodon estimated to be 10,000 to 14,000 years old and discovered at the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning in Mayville.

The excavation of the mastodon bones is scheduled for the weekends of Oct. 8 and Oct. 15.

Findings could play an important role in helping understand life at the end of Michigan’s Ice Age, said Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology in Ann Arbor, and leader of the dig. “These kind of sites have great potential to reveal a lot of interesting things about the history of Michigan, human interaction with these animals, and more,” said Fisher, who also is a U-M professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Fisher, who leads excavations around the world of mastodons and mammoths (both extinct relatives of the elephant), said the Fowler Center site is unique in that the bones were discovered because of natural erosion.

That means scientists will not only have the bones to study, but the largely undisturbed soil and sediment around them, potentially offering details about what caused extinction of mastodons, how organisms respond to change in climate and/or habitat, and more.

“There’s a high potential of importance that resides with any site of this sort,” Fisher said.

Mastadons and mammoths once roamed North America before disappearing more than 10,000 years ago. Over the years, the remains of about 300 mastodons and 30 mammoths have been recovered in Michigan, Fisher said.

“What Fowler Center gets out of it is being part of historical research…and I can see there being further discussions about how it can benefit the community and camp more at some point,” said Fowler Center Executive Director Kyle Middleton, adding that there is talk of a film being produced about the excavation. (Story continues below photo)

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Just a few of the mastodon bones found at the Fowler Center. (Photo by John Cook)

The first mastodon bones at Fowler Center were discovered in 2014, Middleton said. Fowler Center is a year-round camp comprising more than 200 acres (including Harmon Lake) for people with special needs and of all ages.  

It also hosts the Fowler Center Alternative Learning Program (in conjunction with the Tuscola County Intermediate School District) – a program that incorporates many nature-based activities into the education process. During one session, students found the bones.

Middleton said the bones “were readily visible. They did not dig to initially find them.”

The 2014 discovery was passed on to the University of Michigan, which did some initial research at the Fowler Center site, but put a more thorough excavation on the backburner due to other priorities at the time, Fisher said.

This past July, however, another batch of almost 30 bones were discovered at Fowler Center.

When Fowler Center officials again reached out to the University of Michigan, excavation of the site was put on the fast track out of concern that word would get out about the discovery.

“They said ‘We need to do a complete excavation of the site,’” Middleton said.

Middleton and Fisher said the exact location of where the bones were found within Fowler Center grounds is being withheld to avoid jeopardizing the site’s integrity.

When it gets closer to the dig, the site will be revealed.  

Fisher said an initial survey of the site using a special kind of probe has led him to believe there are more bones to be found at Fowler Center.

Based on the size of the bones collected so far, Fisher said it’s believed the mastodon was nearly fully grown.

Fisher said he’s been doing such research since 1979 and that he still gets excited at the prospect of a dig like the one planned for Mayville.

“I’m excited as can be when I go to each site,” he said. “I still have my lineup of questions that I still want answered, things that I still want more evidence on. So I look at each site as the next opportunity for new insight.”

Fisher said his team generally handles one dig like the one planned in Mayville a year.

Last year, the team was at a Chelsea, Michigan-area farm where a farmer discovered bones while digging a well.

The team was able to uncover an almost entire mammoth skull and tusks.

Mammoth skull and tusks hoisted from excavation pit at site in unincorporated Washtenaw County, southwest of Ann Arbor, on Thursday. (Photos by Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography.)
Mammoth skull and tusks hoisted from excavation pit at site in unincorporated Washtenaw County, southwest of Ann Arbor, last October. (Photo by Daryl Marshke/Michigan Photography.)

In addition to scientists from the University of Michigan and officials from the Fowler Center, educators from Tuscola County were invited to be part of the crew involved in the excavation.

“This is an unparalleled opportunity to share in the recovery of fossil material and interest with scientists and educators committed to deepening our understanding of the history of life and the history of human interaction with the natural world around us,” the invitation to apply read.

Participants will undergo a two-hour orientation and be part of the team that is scheduled to excavate the bones from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Oct. 8-9 and Oct. 15-16.

Already, seven applicants have been told they will be part of the dig.

Abigail Chapman, science teacher, Caro High School, is one of them.

Chapman said she has never been involved in such a dig, but says she is excited to participate. She shared the news with her students Tuesday.

Chapman told The Advertiser she plans to document the process with plenty of photos and videos.

“I wanted to have this really unique experience that I could share with my students, and learn a lot more about ice age history, paleontology, and all of those things,” Chapman said. “I’m really excited and can’t wait to get started.”

Middleton said the center “is assuming the general public will come” to the dig, though guests will be kept on the outskirts of the activity.

Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology and leader of the dig near Chelsea. Fisher is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.
Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology and leader of the dig near Chelsea. Fisher is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“Our goal is to make it as accessible as possible and manage it the best we can with a lot of unknowns,” Middleton said.

“I’m not telling people ‘No, you can’t show up.’ It’s just going to be a given that they will.”

The Fowler Center’s website can be found at http://bit.ly/2czGpBa

The center has created a Facebook page for the mastodon dig event that can be found at http://bit.ly/2dpwOCZ

Andrew Dietderich is editor of The Advertiser and can be reached at andrew@tcadvertiser.com

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