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Stateside Podcast: Tusk analysis reveals mastodon’s past

Guests read the sign below a towering mastodon skeleton that graces the entrance of the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History. The skeleton's tusks stretch into the foreground.
Laura Weber-Davis
Michigan Radio
Guests enjoy the mastodons in the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History.

For generations now, the two mastodons that greet visitors at the entrance of the Ann Arbor Natural History Museum have inspired awe and wonder.

Recent advancements in technology allow researchers to better understand the life and death of the largest of the pair, an adult male.

University of Michigan paleontologist Dan Fisher was a member of the team that originally recovered the mastodon from Ft. Wayne, Indiana in the late 1990s, and he is the co-author of a new study on the animal. By studying the isotopic composition of the mastodon’s tusk, Fisher was able to identify physical lines that appear at different rates.

“There are daily lines,” Fisher said. “There are biweekly–or approximately fortnightly–lines and then those are all packaged into annual increments.”

By studying these growth patterns, Fisher was able to identify how much the mastodon ate at different times of the year. The process also revealed that the animal returned to a certain area at the same time every year, which was determined to be the mating season.

It was here that the mastodon met his fate.

Baer and Fisher View Mastodon
Laura Weber-Davis
Michigan Radio
Dan Fisher (right) tells April Baer (left) about the life of the Ann Arbor mastodon

The gaping hole in the side of the mastodon’s head is a wound Fisher has seen several times before, and only in adult males. He also noticed damage and misshaping on other tusks he examined.

“On a whole succession of years in the animal's adulthood, the tusk was used in some sort of forceful movement, ” Fisher explained. “The animal was slamming that tusk tip into an opponent. And the force that slams the tusk into an opponent induces a reaction force acting on the tusk tip, pressing it downwards and back and into the tusk socket. It crunches this very thin growing margin of the tusk into the bony back wall of that socket.”

As a result, the tusk would grow rough and “gnarly” in certain areas. These abnormalities, combined with the fatal wound on the side of the mastodon’s head paint a dramatic picture.

Around late spring or early summer 13,000 years ago, the massive creature returned to his regular mating grounds in search of a companion. A struggle between males ensued, and our wooly Romeo was killed fighting for his lady.

A better soap opera, we rarely see.

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Ronia Cabansag is a producer for Stateside. She comes to Michigan Radio from Eastern Michigan University, where she earned a BS in Media Studies & Journalism and English Linguistics with a minor in Computer Science.
Asher Wertheimer is a junior at Olivet College studying Journalism and Mass Communication.