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Shadow of the Mastodon: Ice Age Animals in New York

by Bernard K. Means

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During the waning days of May and the first part of June 2018, I found myself surrounded by the fossils of long extinct Ice Age animals that once called New York their home, especially those associated with mastodons. Mastodons superficially resembled African or Asian elephants, having tusks and a trunk, but studies in their evolution show they last shared a common ancestor with modern elephants over 10 million years ago. Mastodons also resembled fellow extinct Ice Age megafauna (large animals) known as mammoths, although the latter are, in fact, close relatives of today’s Asian elephants. Mammoths, especially the woolly mammoth, have captured the imaginations of the public and scholars alike, even before the various Ice Age films, overshadowing the meagre attention paid to mastodons. Mammoths were more widely dispersed than mastodons, and fossils and even complete frozen specimens have been discovered in Europe, Asia, and North America. Mastodons, on the other hand, are a North American animal that roamed from Mexico to Canada, and from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. The mastodon figures into the early history of the United States. From its discovery in the early 1700s, people were fascinated with this mysterious animal. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and Ben Franklin all once owned mastodon fossils and Jefferson was especially interested in them, thinking that they might still be alive out west. Lewis and Clark were supposed to keep an eye out for these creatures during their travels. I’ve even been fortunate to 3D scan a mastodon tooth that once belonged to Ben Franklin, and that was found in property that he owned in Philadelphia during the 1700s.


Franklin’s mastodon molar was not the first mastodon fossil that I 3D scanned. That honor goes to the humerus of a baby mastodon from the Carter Bog site in Darke County, Ohio that I 3D scanned at the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH). I was actually at VMNH to 3D scan some archaeological items and animal bones from the extensive type collection maintained by Dr. Elizabeth Moore. But, when VMNH’s Ray Vodden asked if I was interested in 3D scanning a bone with dire wolf and short-faced bear damage, I, of course, said yes. This particular fossil was on loan from the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery (Boonshoft) in Dayton, Ohio, where I have been twice this year to 3D scan Ice Age animals (and a mummy’s sarcophagus), including the week before I went to Albany. While the digital documentation of the mastodon humerus at VMNH was fortuitous, the more recent efforts to create virtual models of Ice Age animals, especially mastodons, from Boonshoft and other places was not.

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3D scanning a mastodon femur at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery on May 24, 2018


The Virtual Curation Laboratory’s first dedicated Ice Age animal project involved giant ground sloth casts from a specimen at Boonshoft. I 3D scanned the casts, digitally mirrored them, and then printed them so that Ray Vodden could make new casts. He needed rights and lefts of left and right elements for a reconstruction of this Ice Age beast. My more recent focus on mastodons comes as a result of work with the Western Science Center (WSC) in Hemet, California, that grew out of a special project funded by the Smithsonian Affiliations program in August 2016. For this project, I demonstrated the potential of 3D scanning to WSC director Dr. Alton Dooley, including on mastodon and other Ice Age animal remains. One year later, in early August 2017, I returned to the WSC as a participant in their innovative Valley of the Mastodons conference and workshop, where various scientists conducted research openly on the main exhibit floor. Members of the public could and did interact directly with all of us as we made measurements and as Dr. Chris Widga of the Gray Fossil Site and I 3D scanned various mastodon and other Ice Age animal fossils.

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3D scanning a mastodon molar at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History on April 9, 2018.

Inspired by the Valley of the Mastodons, I’ve deliberately dedicated part of the Virtual Curation Laboratory’s efforts over the last year to 3D scanning mastodon and other Ice Age fossils, including via day trips to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. By 3D scanning mastodon fossils, and making them available online for viewing as 3D digital models that can be fully manipulated—and even 3D printed—I hope the more researchers, including aspiring young scientists, decide to devote more effort and attention to the study of the American Mastodon.

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Skull and tusk of the Randolph Mammoth

Toward that end, I applied for and received a grant from the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Faculty Council for a summer research grant entitled “3-D Digital Ice Age Megafauna Project.” This project involved travel for 3-D scanning purposes to the New York State Museum (NYSM) in Albany, New York. An old friend and colleague, Dr. John P. Hart, NYSM’s Director of Research and Collections, was contacted prior to my research trip to make arrangements, especially with Dr. Robert Feranec, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Curator of Mammals. The first complete mastodon skeleton was excavated in New York State, and then General George Washington even once took a break from fighting during the American Revolution to visit mastodon remains found by a farmer in New York State. The NYSM has a rich collection of Ice Age animal remains, including the Cohoes Mastodon (http://exhibitions.nysm.nysed.gov/cohoesmastodon/), a giant beaver skull, and the only mammoth skull found in New York State. None of these Ice Age remains had been 3-D scanned in the past.

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3D scanning a giant ground sloth pelvis

I arrived via train on Tuesday, May 29, where I was met by Dr. Hart. Actual 3D scanning began the morning of Wednesday, May 30, in the Ice Ages exhibit area. The exhibit area was roped off, because I was going to be 3D scanning items currently on exhibit, but we wanted to ensure that museum patrons could watch the 3D scanning as it happened, and even ask questions about what we were doing. That morning, I 3D scanned various fossils from New York State, including a giant ground sloth (Megalonyx jeffersoni) pelvis from Newberg, a peccary (Platygonus compressus) skull from Gainseville, and the aforementioned mammoth skull (and tusk) found during excavations at the Randolph Fish Hatchery. Because of how the mammoth skull and tusk were exhibited, I could not scan their bottoms.  This is not a major issue for the tusk, as only half the tusk is exhibited, but did result in an incomplete scan of the skull. I am planning a subsequent return visit, where we will make arrangements to scan the base of the skull.

In the early afternoon, a femur from a mammoth found in Kitchiwan, New York, was removed from its vertical display, and, after 3D scanning that, I turned my attention for the rest of the day to the Cohoes Mastodon, which is mounted in full in a different part of the museum.

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Using a lift to 3D scan the Cohoes Mastodon. Images courtesy of John P. Hart.

My main focus for scanning this mastodon, partly because of time constraints, was on its skull. This presented logistical issues, as the mastodon mount stands about 8 feet tall at the shoulder, and the skull was even further off the ground. Our first effort involved a small lift that could fit the narrow area between one wall and the large, raised platform that the Cohoes Mastodon mount rested upon. This lift, which was quite shaky, achieved the necessary height but could not get close enough to enable me to 3D scan any of the mastodon’s skull. There was a moment of drama—very, very minor drama—as the lift got stuck as it was lowering. I was able to step off onto the raised platform before the lift became functional. At that point, I suggested we try using ladders. The raised platform was wide enough to support ladders, although just barely on the left side of the mastodon mount. The surface of the raised platform, which was designed to emulate a real ground surface, was a bit uneven, so the ladder was sometimes unsteady.  I’ll admit the combination of being on a ladder, inches away from a mastodon skull, and with bright museum lights shining in my face did cause a bit of vertigo. I spent the afternoon ascending and descending on the ladder, as I moved my way around the skull.

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Using a ladder to 3D scan the Cohoes Mastodon. Images courtesy of John P. Hart.

That night, I edited the digital model of the Cohoes Mastodon skull, and determined that I was missing some data, including along the right side of the mandible and behind the zygomatic arches. So, when I returned to the museum on the morning of Thursday, May 31, I met up with John Hart, we secured a ladder, and I added more scan data to my 3D model of the skull. I also scanned the left front leg of the Cohoes Mastodon, but time constraints precluded additional scanning of the mastodon—I was to meet with Bob Feranec in his collections area to scan some other mastodon remains, including one tusk of the Cohoes Mastodon. The tusks in the Cohoes Mastodon skull are replicas, as the real ones are two fragile to display mounted in the skull. After 3D scanning the Cohoes Mastodon tusk, I then scanned that day fossils from three other mastodons, each named after their find locations in New York State: Temple Hill Mastodon (right femur; left tibia), Arborio Mastodon (right tibia and left humerus), and the Pirello or Newark Mastodon (axis, e.g. second cervical vertebra). I also 3D scanned a giant beaver skull from New York and the antler of an Irish Elk from Ireland. Also in the NYSM collection was a mammoth tooth from Kirkdale Cave in England, which was excavated in the 1820s by William Buckland.

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A somewhat fragile plaster sculpture of a mastodon was also 3D scanned; this dates to 1908 and was created by Charles R. Knight. Chris Widga (personal communication, 2018) notes that Knight used sculptures to understand shadows when designing his paintings. Although not Ice Age related, I also scanned a vertebra from a modern fin whale.

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My last day at the NYSM, June 1, was divided between archaeology and paleontology. The archaeological items are culturally sensitive, so I will not discuss them here. In the Vertebrate Paleontology area, I 3D scanned three more vertebra from Pirello Mastodon (cervical vertebrae 3, 4, and 5) and the maxilla and part of the cranium of the Arborio Mastodon. The latter was missing the top part of the skull, as it was sheared off by the heavy equipment that led to its discovery. I also added three more mastodons to my digital collection: the Monroe Mastodon (left and right cheek, e.g. lower, tusks); the Perkinsville Mastodon (a molar); and the Folger Mastodon (also a molar). The molar from the Folger Mastodon is the oldest mastodon fossil from New York, having been radiocarbon dated to ca. 30,000 years ago. The remaining two items I 3D scanned were from more recent animals. One was a horse femur, the first item cataloged in Vertebrate Paleontology, which was found in glacial clays—however, it turned out not to be an Ice Age horse, but rather a more modern horse buried by a farmer in very old deposits. The last item I 3D scanned was a skull from a zoo gorilla that died unexpectedly. The top of the cranium was cut away so that the brain could be removed and studied in an attempt to determine the gorilla’s cause of death.

The next morning I took the train back to my home in Fredericksburg, Virginia. The work on Ice Age animals is still continuing as today, more than a week after my return, I am still finishing the editing of the 3D scanned fossils from New York State. Thanks to Bob Feranec and the NYSM, these fossils and more recent bones are all being made available for public download at https://sketchfab.com/virtualcurationlab/collections/new-york-state-museum.