Valley of the Mastodons Day 1

Hey there every peoples!

I had meant to do this sooner. In fact I meant to do it in real time during the event but the wi-fi at my crappy hole-in-the-wall motel didn’t work! And then stuff just kept piling up around here. But I was able to chip away at it enough during the week that I finally got it up. Let’s hope the two follow ups aren’t so tardy.

Last week the Western Science Center in Hemet, California host a workshop focused on mastodons. Why? Well the Western Science Center houses the collections found during the construction of Diamond Valley Lake. So many mastodons were found that the locality was nicknamed “Valley of the Mastodons”. In fact that is the title of their new exhibit, which this workshop was a lead up to.

However this workshop wasn’t simply a publicity stunt. Scientists who study mastodons and other ancient elephants came from all over the place to collect data for their research. The Western Science Center’s collections are a great asset to paleontology but not many people know about them. The workshop allowed scientists to make use of this marvelous collection. And what further sets it apart is the science wasn’t strictly behind the scenes. A lot of the work was done in the exhibit gallery in full view of the public. This allowed regular people to see firsthand how science is done and ask the scientists themselves questions about paleontology.

The first day centered on this concept. A mastodon known as Little Stevie has been on display at the center since it opened over 10 years ago. During that time his fossils (save for the skull, which was kept in the collections) have remained under heavy panes of glass that people regularly walk on. So for the first time since he was put on display, Little Stevie’s case was opened so several of his bones could be examined.

The glass is lifted. Let the science commence!

The hall was certainly jumping with all kinds of activity!

Also gracing us with their presence were my friends Kathleen Springer and Eric Scott, who took on the herculean task of excavating Diamond Valley. And designed the Western Science Center. Really everything was possible because of them.

It was but an isolated tooth. But Kathleen didn’t care. She loved it like it was her own child.

Scanning fossils was a big part of the workshop. This way we can still have a way to look at the specimen even though it is back behind glass. Bernard Means of the Virtual Curation Laboratory (@ Virgina Commonwealth University) seemed to use the conventional approach.

Dr. Bernard Means was busy laser scanning mastodon and bison bones.

Casts weren’t the only goodies Bernard was printing out. Little surfing mastodons, little winged mastodons, and little ground sloths. Screw Pokemon, we gotta catch all of these!

Chris Widga of the East Tennessee Museum of Natural History had a different method in mind: a seizure gun! No joke, a little gun that shot out bright rapid bursts of light. Apparently each flash is a picture. a computer program measures the distance the light had to travel to create a 3d map of the object being scanned. Really cool stuff (unless your epileptic, maybe)

Chris Widga scanning one of Little Stevie’s tusks.

The co-organizer of the workshop, Kathylan Smith, got in on the action as well:

Kathylan Smith taking measurements of Little Stevie’s femur and tusk

Another big part of the research going down was molding. A couple scientists were using a compound to make molds of certain on teeth and tusks. These will then be used to make casts that can be examined under a microscope. This reveals patterns of microwear, which can offer clues to diet and how a mastodon was using its tusks. Before the compound could be applied, they needed to use acetone to remove the protective glue on the fossil to access the original surface:

Jeremy Green and Brett Dooly prepping spots on one of Little Stevie’s tusks.

Molding compound setting on one of Little Stevie’s tusks.

Of course nothing having to do with the Western Science Center is complete without Max. Max is the name given to one of the specimens found and displayed. At 9% Max is far less complete than Little Stevie. But what we do have reveals Max to have been a big mastodon. at an estimated 10 feet at the shoulder he is the largest mastodon in the western U.S. (and far larger than many of the mastodons from California). He has become the mascot (or should I say “maxcot”?! I’ll slap myself upside the head) for the museum and is pretty much its face where the museum is promoted. How does a mastodon with a fragile fossil skull the size of a bumper car make public appearances? With a fluffy little avatar of course:

Max the Mastodon!

Ball of awesome travels all over to spread the good word of the Western Science Center. He has internal leg support, a bendable trunk, and fits easily into most shoulder bags:

How does one explain this to TSA?

He can even get caught in the occasional existential quandary:

Max ponders a cast of his own tooth.

And like the paleontologists who study him, Max likes to kick back at the end of the day and get hammered:

For a little guy Max sure can hold his booze!

And he is willing to do horrible selfies if you ask nicely:

Funny thing is: this is humiliating for him!

But all good things must come to an end. After a busy and productive day, the remains of Little Stevie had to go back into the case:

Moving a mastodon is not easy. Here it takes a curator, a canuk, and a science writer (Andrew McDonald, Grant Zazula, and Brian Switek) to pass the specimen to Brett.

Brett Dooley carefully lays the bones back into position.

The first day was a hit. It was great to watch the scientists… sciencing… and getting an up close look at a magnificent specimen without being separated by glass. But this was just the beginning. The next day brought the workshop into full swing with a mini symposium.

Till next time!

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