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Exploring the Valley of the Mastodon

This guest post was contributed by science writer Jeanne Timmons (@mostlymammoths). The post reflects the views solely of its author, which are not necessarily shared by PLOS. Full disclosure: A travel stipend and lodging was offered for the author to make the trip to California to attend the workshop and exhibit.

Some fossils appeal to people more than others. This is true not just of the general public, but also within paleontology itself. Mastodons, for whatever reason, seem to get the short end of the stick.

One reason– at least in terms of the public–may be that most people just don’t know about mastodons. Their charisma is limited to a dearth of broader information—a lack of popular books, movies, documentaries, etc.–about them. Just as T. rex dominates public imagination regarding large theropod dinosaurs, woolly mammoths (out of all mammoth species) dominate the realm of the Ice Age.

Mastodons, those relatively smaller, stockier, and hairy proboscideans, however, will be front and center of the latest exhibit at the Western Science Center in California this August. The “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit opens to the public on August 5th, but the days immediately preceding its opening will be full of mastodon research. Scientists throughout North America—from the Yukon in Canada to various states within the US—will convene to jointly study a number of the local mastodon fossils and present research they’ve conducted on mastodons in their respective regions.

Like mastodons themselves, the vast collection at the Western Science Center appears to be largely unknown both to the public and to most paleontologists. Thanks to the work of Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott in the mid-2000s, hundreds of thousands of Ice Age fossils were excavated from Diamond Valley, an area near the Western Science Center. The “Valley of the Mastodons” exhibit will feature at least 12 partial mastodon skeletons from those excavations.

“We’re pretty confident,” Dr. Alton Dooley, Jr., Executive Director of the Western Science Center, expressed, “that this will be the biggest exhibit of mastodons [to date].”

Dr. Kathlyn (Katy) Smith with mastodon fossils.  Photo by Jeremy Wilburn, provided by the author.

Dr. Dooley and Dr. Kathlyn (“Katy”) Smith, Associate Professor of Geology and Curator of Paleontology at Georgia Southern University, worked together to create the scientific workshop and exhibit. Both paleontologists have focused heavily on mastodons in their careers: Dr. Smith from grad school forward; Dr. Dooley from his time at the Science Center. By creating this event, they are bringing fellow mastodon researchers together from disparate areas of the continent to learn that much more about the species.

“I’m really excited about the workshop and exhibit,” said Dr. Smith, “because I haven’t met many of the attendees in person yet, and it’ll be great to talk face-to-face, especially amongst the remains of so many mastodons.”

But neither Dr. Smith nor Dr. Dooley intends to keep that research simply within the scientific community. Students have been invited to the day of presentations (free of museum admission should they RSVP), and video streaming of those talks will be made available to all online. Observations from the visiting scholars about the fossils on display will be included in the exhibit itself, offering visitors a window into important or interesting aspects of those fossils.

“Part of what we’re shooting for here is to modify the relationship between research and outreach through exhibits. To really shorten that chain,” Dr. Dooley explained. “Often, exhibits have little direct connection between researchers and the exhibit. We want to see how short we can make that chain.”

Part of the research will include CT scanning various mastodon fossils. CT scanning enables researchers to view the inside of bones without destroying or damaging any part of the bone. This reveals intriguing aspects of mastodon growth, as well as the internal impact of any injury. Given its expense and given the size of most fossils in comparison to the CT scanners themselves, it is a process that cannot always be utilized in paleontological research.

CT scanning mastodon mandible – Western Science Center

Visiting scientists include Kathleen Springer (USGS) and Eric Scott (Cogstone Resource Management), the two paleontologists responsible for so much of the Western Science Center collection; Jeremy Green (Kent State University); Bernard Means (Virginia Commonwealth University); Gregory Smith (Vanderbilt University); Chris Widga (East Tennessee University); and Grant Zazula (Yukon Department of Tourism and Culture). Their work includes the study of teeth, stable isotopes, mastodon biology, genetic information and the 3D replication of fossils. An enormous work of paleoart by Brian Engh based on the injuries of Max—a mastodon in the Western Science Center’s permanent collection—will be hung in the exhibit. Visiting poet Christina Olson will be researching mastodons for poetry based on the species.

In a sense, one might characterize this event as the Comic-Con of Mastodons: it is an opportunity for those who love mastodons to celebrate that passion in science and in art, to share resources, and to build connections for the future.

Or, as Dr. Smith stated, “I think the workshop will be a wonderful opportunity to discuss future collaborations and to ensure that this understudied assemblage (DVLLF) will be studied for years to come.”

Background image by Brian Engh.

Link to the exhibit:

Link to list of presentations:

Link to Brian Engh:

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