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VCU Archaeology

Science-ing the Scientists and the Other Elephant in the Room: Mastodons!

by Bernard K. Means

bkm_early morning golden villages

Early morning at the  Golden Villages Palms RV Resort

Last Saturday, August 5, 2017, Dr. Alton  Dooley, Executive Director at the Western Science Center, arrived at the Golden Villages Palms RV Resort just after dawn at 6 am. He was picking up four of the participants in the three-day Valley of the Mastodons workshop and conference, which culminated in the opening of the largest ever exhibit of mastodon fossils the night before, also entitled the Valley of the Mastodons. Along with myself and Alton, the car included Drs. Jeremy Green (Kent State Tuscarawas), Chris Widga (East Tennessee State University), and Grant Zazula (Yukon Paleontologist). As we dropped off our cabin keys to the security guard on the way out, he asked who we were. When he found out, he stated that we were “science-ing the scientists”— this seems an apt characterization of the preceding few days.

bkm_group photo 1

Group photo of the Valley of Mastodons workshop and conference team. Note Brian Engh’s life-size fighting mastodon mural as a backdrop (Courtesy of the Western Science Center)


The journey from Hemet, California, to the Ontario, California, airport took a little over an hour. The five of us spent the time reminiscing on the tremendous success of the innovative Valley of the Mastodons workshop and conference. Someone,  I believe Grant, noted that no one really ever focused on the issue of extinction during our collective time in Hemet.  This was somewhat surprising, because if one hears at all about mastodons in the news or on science-oriented broadcasts, mastodons usually are just enumerated among a list of megafauna (large animals) that went extinct at the end of the last Ice Age, such as giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, and their more famous cousin, the mammoth. Mastodons have received little attention  relatively speaking among researchers–they are literally the other elephant in the room when it comes to scholarly studies of Ice Age proboscidenas. This is certainly a shame, because several founding fathers were obsessed with the mastodon, as I detail here, and, because mastodons are simply worthy of study in their own right.

bkm_Katy talks mastodons while the 3D scanners lasers move across her

Katy Smith, co-organizer of the Valley of  Mastodons workshop and conference, is in the path of lasers from the NextEngine scanner.

The Valley of the Mastodons event was designed to bring together a team of scholars to study the largest collection of mastodon fossils, have them conduct their research in a dynamic fashion that allowed museum visitors to witness and interact with the researchers, have all the scholars present their findings in a half-day-long symposium open to visitors, and culminate in the largest ever exhibit of mastodon fossils.

bkm_Katy Smith writes her observatios on a white board

Katy writes her observations on a whiteboard incorporated into the Valley of the Mastodons exhibit.

This exhibit included white boards where many of the researchers outlined observations they had made in the preceding days. This format was a resounding success and should be emulated by museums everywhere–even if they lack mastodons!

bkm_Brett Dooley uses 3D printed teeth digitally extracted from Max the Mastodons jaws

Brett Dooley uses a 3D printed mastodon tooth extracted from a CT scan to interact with visitors.

bkm_Andrew T. McDonald with visitors and using 3D 2

Andrew McDonald employs 3D printed mastodon replicas to interact with young museum visitors

I actually arrived in Hemet at the end of July.  Alton was kind enough to pick me up then from the Ontario Airport and take me to Hemet for my second visit to this California town.   Just over a year before, the Smithsonian Affiliations office in Washington, D.C. arranged for me to travel to the Western Science Center so that I could demonstrate how 3-D technology could help this affiliated museum’s mission–as I talk about here. This visit was timed to coincide with noted mastodon researcher Dr. Kathlyn (Katy) Smith (Georgia Southern University), and helped inspire Alton and Katy to organize the Valley of the Mastodons workshop/conference/exhibit.

bkm_grant watches as one of his mastodon molars is 3D scanned

Grant Zazula watches as one of his mastodon molars from the Yukon is scanned

bkm_me scanning yukon mastodon tooth from grant

Using the NextEngine to 3D scan a mastodon molar

After a night of rest, I was taken over to the Western Science Center on the first day of August.  This was actually a full day before the workshop/conference began, so I spent the day 3-D scanning various mastodon bones, tusks, and teeth that were going to be integrated into the Valley of the Mastodons exhibit.

I was joined later in the morning by Aubree Coelho, a student at the Western Center Academy, a charter school located one the same campus as the Western Science Center. Aubree had helped me on my visit in August 2016 and was a great assistant this August day in 2017 and the next day as well.

bkm_aubree with tusk replica

Aubree holds a 3D printed mastodon tusk 3D scanned from a fossil  found near Yorktown, Virginia.

She learned how to 3-D scan and edit the digital models that resulted from 3D scanning I did during this current visit. Among the 3-D models that she edited were mastodon molars Grant brought from the Yukon territory of Canada.


Mastodon molar from the Yukon.

On the second day of August, Alton picked me up very early.  We arrived at the Western Science Center just before 4 am.  Reporter Erin Myers with Los Angeles’s KTLA was due to conduct live interviews of myself, the Western Science Center’s Alton Dooley and Brittney Stoneburg, and paleontologists Eric Scott (Cogstone Resource Management) and Kathleen Springer (USGS).

bkm_Erin myers prepares to interview Alton Dooley

Erin Myers prepares to interview Alton  Dooley.

bkm_2017-08-02 07.36.16

Brittney Stoneburg is interviewed by Erin Myers.

The latter two helped create much of the collection at the Western Science Center, as discussed here.

bkm_erin myers interviewing me courtesy of WSC

Reporter Erin Myers asking about 3D printed mastodon fossils from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and, of course, the Western Science Center (Courtesy of the Western Science Center).

A breaking fire in Hollywood cut my segment short, which is why it ended abruptly. I did manage to 3D scan KTLA reporter Erin Myers during a break between segments.

bkm_Erin Myers 3D

Erin’s KTLA interviews have been archived here.

Later in the morning, the rest of the visiting mastodon researchers arrived at the Western Science Center: Jeremy Green, Ashley Leger (Cogstone Resource Management), Michael Pasenko (Environmental Planning Group), Eric Scott, Gregory Smith (Vanderbilt University), Katy Smith, Kathleen Springer, Chris Widga, and Grant Zazula. We were also joined by Jeanne Timmons (Mostly Mammoths) fame, poet Christina Olson, and artist Brian Engh.

bkm_2017-08-02 09.49.41

Brett Dooley hands mastodon and ancient bison bones to awaiting researchers.

The main focus of the first formal day of the Valley of the Mastodons workshop/conference was the examination of Little Stevie, a California mastodon exhibited beneath the museum floor. Earlier in the week Western Science Center staff carefully removed the clear panels set in the floor above Little Stevie and temporarily replaced them with plywood.

2017-08-03 14.50.28

Chris 3D scans some mastodon bones.

This day, with the aid of Brett Dooley, several bones and tusks from Little Stevie were carefully removed for study by the assembled team, as well as 3D scanning by Chris with his Artec 3D scanner.

bkm_Aubree edits while ancient bison bone 3D scanned

Aubree edits a 3D scan of a mastodon fossil while an ancient bison bone is 3D scanned.

Aubree and I continued working with the NextEngine Desktop 3D scanner, focusing on fossil bison bones that were also in Little Stevie’s case. Throughout the day, museum visitors came up to see what Aubree and I were doing, and examined the 3-D printed mastodon bones, teeth, and tusks that I had brought with me from the Virtual Curation Laboratory. At the close of the day, all the fossils were returned to Little Stevie’s case.

bkm_Jeremy Green examines a tusk

Jeremy examines a mastodon tusk while Grant looks on.

bkm_Greg smith examines yukon molars

Greg studies plaque on a mastodon molar from the Yukon.

The next morning,  August 3, a mini-conference was held with the assembled scholars. All of the presentations were spectacular. I liked Michael Pasenko’s focus on one skeletal element, the scaphoid, among different proboscideans, and Grant Zazula’s discussion of mastodons in the frozen north, particularly the consideration of the history of paleontological research in the Yukon. But, really, all the presentations were wonderful and I learned quite a bit. You can see the full list of presentations here. Artist Brian Engh joined the assembled researchers to discuss his gorgeous painting of two male mastodons fighting–a central feature of the Valley of the Mastodons exhibit.  You can learn more about his painting here. I spoke about my 3D scanning and 3D printing efforts related to mastodon fossils from: the Western Science Center in Hemet; Saltville and Yorktown mastodons in Virginia: fossils casts from the Carter Bog site in Darke County, Ohio, loaned to the Virginia Museum of Natural History; and, Ben Franklin’s mastodon tooth found in Philadelphia.

On Friday, August 4, everyone was working to frantically finish their research and ready the exhibit for opening.  I spent part of the day 3D scanning a mastodon rib with evidence for premortem damage.

bkm_mastodon rib

I also worked with Alton to select some casts that I could bring back to my lab in Richmond for 3D scanning, including mastodon, mammoth, and camelops teeth. The middle of our day was punctuated by a visit to a lovely winery.


I returned after the visit to continue 3D scanning the mastodon rib, and to begin packing away my equipment for the return to Virginia.  The rib took a bit more effort than anticipated, so it was not ready for its place during the members-only exhibit opening.

The latter was extremely well attended and Aubree was able to come with her father to see the opening.

bkm_exhibit opening

She hopes to volunteer more at the Western Science Center in the coming year, and I hope to make a return trip myself.

On a personal aside, I was fortunate to reconnect with Bryn Potter who I worked with briefly in the mid-1980s at the Southwest Museum in Los Angeles. She brought her son  Bret along, who is considering paleontology when he goes to college.  The public nature of the science happening during the Valley of the Mastodons workshop/conference enabled him to speak to several researchers.  In Bryn’s words, “Bret is so excited, he hasn’t stopped talking about his 2 days with the experts. He’s hoping they’ll repeat it next year, and that he’ll be able to go.”


A mastodon tusk possibly broken during a fight is on display as part of the Valley of the Mastodons exhibit.


Now that I am back in Virginia, I plan to continue working on Ice Age animals, especially mastodons. Grant has provided me with a list of mastodon bones found during the Yukon gold rush that are curated in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and plan to make arrangements to 3D scan them. Replicas can then be sent to the Yukon Beringia Interpretative Centre.


Another Yukon mastodon tooth.

So, for more mastodon madness, stay tuned!


Pathological mastodon vertebra on display as part of the Valley of the Mastodons exhibit.





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