From Man to Beast: How Science Continues to Transform our Understanding of the American Mastodon

by Bernard K. Means, Virtual Curation Laboratory at Virginia Commonwealth University

In 1705, a massive tooth was extracted from the banks of the Hudson River in New York State. A few people at the time thought it was from the mouth of a Biblical giant. Over time, scholars recognized that this tooth and other skeletal remains uncovered across North America belonged to an extinct distant relative of the living elephant, the American mastodon. Three hundred years of research have transformed our understanding of the American mastodon—but there is still quite a bit to learn.  This is why I am happy to join a group of renowned scholars as part of the Valley of Mastodons workshop and exhibit the first week of August 2017 at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California.

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Figure 1: 3D scanning the mascot of the Western Science Center

Attending this workshop actually represents my second trip to the Western Science Center—and almost a year to the day of the first trip. In early August 2016, I spent a few days at the Western Science Center on a special mission supported by the Smithsonian Affiliations office in Washington, D.C. I was asked to come to the Western Science Center not because of any special knowledge of mastodons – rather, I came to share my expertise on the application of 3D technology to artifacts and fossils, including 3D laser scanning and 3D printing.

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Figure 2: 3D scanning a fragment of Max the Mastodon’s femur with the assistance of Aubree Coelho of the Western Center Academy.

During my short visit to the Western Science Center, I demonstrated how 3D laser scanning works—I even got to 3D scan bones from the Center’s acclaimed mastodon known as Max–and the plushy mascot that represents Max!. A student from the Western Center Academy aided my efforts in the 3D scanning of a fragment of Max’s femur. I am looking forward to returning with my 3D scanners to the Western Science Center to 3D scan mastodon bones in just a few days.

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Figure 3: 3D scanning a mastodon tooth that belonged to Ben Franklin

Since my visit to the Western Science Center, mastodons—or at least their bones, teeth, and tusks—keep crossing my path. The week following my August 2016 trip to Hemet, California, I was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 3D scanning artifacts dating to the signing of the U.S. Constitution. I also found out that the National Park Service had a mastodon tooth at their Franklin Court property. They graciously allowed me to 3D scan that tooth and even make the 3D model publicly available to teachers and researchers alike.

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Figure 4: 3D scanned mastodon  bones. From left to right: Baby mastodon humerus with carnivore damage from the Carter Bog site; Mastodon rib with pathology from Saltville; and, Mastodon  tusk fragment from Yorktown.

In the last year, I have 3D scanned mastodon bones or tusks from the Carter Bog site in Darke County, Ohio, on loan to the Virginia Museum of Natural History; at the Museum of the Middle Appalachians in Saltville, Virginia, including bones excavated in 1917 by the Carnegie Museum of Natural History; and, a mastodon that was discovered in a creek near Yorktown, Virginia by a retired College of William and Mary geologist, Dr. Gerald Jones. I will bring 3D printed replicas from all these mastodons—bones, teeth, and tusks–to the Valley of Mastodons workshop and exhibit.

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Figure 5: Cross-section of Max the Mastodon’s jaw showing teeth digitally extracted.

I’ll even have teeth that were digitally extracted from a CT scan of Max the Mastodon’s jaw by my colleague at VCU, forensic anthropologist Terrie Simmons-Ehrhardt. I look forward to sharing all these replicas with my esteemed colleagues, including the great people at the Western Science Center, as well as members of the general public.

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Figure 6: Virginia Embrey, age 5,  holds a 3D printed mastodon tusk.

A New Season, A New Exhibit: Mastodons Return to Diamond Valley Lake

by Brittney Stoneburg, Marketing & Events Specialist

Welcome back to Insert Exhibit Name Here!

Having said our goodbyes to Stepping Out of the Past, the Western Science Center is preparing for the opening of our most ambitious exhibit yet: Valley of the Mastodons.

As you may know, over 100,000 fossils were found during the excavation of Diamond Valley Lake. Included in these bones were things like giant ground sloths, bisons, camels, even mammoths – but perhaps the most interesting is the mastodon.

So what is a mastodon? It may look very similar to a mammoth, but Mammut americanum is only distantly related to mammoths. Mastodons are, in general, shorter and stockier than Columbian mammoths, with a sloping skull, straighter tusks, and a set of teeth that shows they had a completely different diet from mammoths (the name mastodon literally means “breast tooth”).

So, when we’re talking about mastodons, we’re talking about this:

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Artwork by Brian Engh (dontmensswithdinosaurs.com)

Not this:

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Artwork by Mauricio Antón

Dozens of mastodons were found at Diamond Valley Lake, so much so that Hemet is sometimes known as Valley of the Mastodons (hence the title of the exhibit). Mastodon fossils are also more prolific at Diamond Valley Lake than mammoths – the inverse is true at the La Brea Tar Pits Museum, only eighty miles away. Perhaps the most famous mastodon at the museum is “Max” (whom you can find on Twitter @MaxMastodon), who is also the largest mastodon ever found on the West Coast.  Max is no ordinary mastodon, however – he has several injuries to his jaw, likely the result of a fight, and his teeth are unusually small for a mastodon. The other mastodons in our collection harbor similar mysteries. So what’s a museum to do? You call in back-up!

To this end, Valley of the Mastodons isn’t just going to be an exhibit – it’s also going to be a scientific workshop, bringing researchers from across North American to the Western Science Center to study the museum’s mastodon collections. It will be three days of research, lectures, and collaboration as the scientists make discoveries, and then present those discoveries directly to the public.

What will they find? We don’t know yet – and that’s the fun of it! From opening up the in-floor case of the mastodon “Little Stevie” for the first time in 10 years, to a newly commissioned piece of artwork featuring Max’s fight, Valley of the Mastodons will prove to be the largest exhibit of mastodons in the world.

Valley of the Mastodons opens to the public on August 5th, so keep your eyes peeled on Insert Exhibit Name Here for more behind-the-scenes sneak peaks as we get ready to open our biggest exhibit yet!

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Stepping Out of the Past (and Over the Finish Line)

by Dr. Alton Dooley, WSC Executive Director

Western Science Center has an ambitious exhibit rotation schedule in which, between our two rotating exhibit galleries, we open five new exhibits each year. When we had our first meetings with the MSJC students back in January, we pointed out to them that even though we’d be working on the exhibit the entire year we would have four other exhibit openings before the hominin exhibit opened.

Such a rapid pace means that many of our exhibits are completed “just in time”, and Stepping Out of the Past is no exception. Because of the way the exhibit comes together, it often looks like nothing is happening until, suddenly, the exhibit is finished. I know some of the MSJC folks who haven’t worked extensively on exhibits are a bit unnerved, since we’re only two days away from opening, but we’re right where we need to be.

That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of activity right now! Most of our text and figure panels went to the printers last week, and are scheduled to arrive sometime today. All of the major structures have been completed, although all are still undergoing touch-up work. The layout of cases and panels in the exhibit hall have been finalized. We have a small army of WSC staff and volunteers and MSJC students and faculty working to complete these over the next two days. As an example, here’s what I’ve been doing on the exhibit over the last week (and note that other staff members are doing far more than I am on the exhibit):

  • Last-minute edits to some of the text panels
  • Writing iPad interactive displays on cave art, and on the migration of Homo erectus out of Africa
  • Working with several other people to install the sandbox specimens
  • Writing the identification guide for the sandbox
  • Making molds and casts of stone tools
  • Painting 3D prints of Homo naledi specimens
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Working on the sandbox.

I actually expect all of those tasks to be completed today except the installation of the sandbox specimens, and that should be completed tomorrow. Some of the wall panels will be installed today, with the remainder tomorrow, and specimens will move into the cases tomorrow. Friday will be cleaning, final touch-ups, and preparation for our opening reception for WSC members Friday night. We’re almost finished!

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A Name & A Cave

by Brittney Stoneburg, Marketing & Events Associate

First things first, we finally have an official name for our upcoming exhibit: Stepping Out of the Past.

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The exhibit will open to the public on December 3rd, with a special reception for museum members on December 2nd. If you’re in Southern California, we hope you’ll stop by.

So now that it has a name, how is Stepping Out of the Past coming along?

In the back of the museum we have a large receiving bay which we use for storage, exhibit intake, and general back of house duties.

We also use it for building massive caves.

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Our Collections Manager Darla Radford with said massive cave.

Based on La Grotte Chauvet in France, Western Science Center staff and Mt. San Jacinto College students have been hard at work for several weeks to bring this exhibit component to life. It’s the culmination of a lot of blood, sweat, tears, and an uncountable number of trips to the local hardware store.

The cave will ultimately aim to be an immersive experience for visitors as we seek to educate them about hominins and humanity’s prehistory. Visitors will even be able to leave their own cave drawings behind on a chalkboard.

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MSJC students and faculty are hard at work helping us build the cave.

Of course, at the moment, the cave is mostly wood and foam, but the process is part of the fun. Soon enough it will be painted and moved into the exhibit hall, and our visitors will get a chance to walk through a slice of prehistory. As a museum, we are uniquely able to bring this kind of experience to the public – there aren’t many other places where you can say you walked through a prehistoric cave! It’s just one way we are able to bring science to our community – and you have to admit, it’s a pretty cool way to do it.

Playing in the Sandbox: Meaningful Exhibit Design

by Dr. Alton Dooley, WSC Executive Director

“Dig site” boxes  (which we usually refer to as sandboxes) are an almost ubiquitous part of any paleontology exhibit. These days they’re often filled with foam crumbles instead of sand, and they’re generally populated with casts of various fossils, usually anchored to the bottom of the box. Using some combination of whisk brooms, plastic trowels, and pails, children will crawl around the sandbox and uncover the fossils Jurassic Park style. Sandboxes are always extremely popular, especially with families with small children, and they are invariably one of the most heavily used parts of an exhibit. We did a sandbox in our Stories from Bones exhibit last year, and we’re doing another one for this exhibit.

I hate sandboxes.

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The sandbox from Stories from Bones.

But my dislike doesn’t stem from the sandbox itself, but rather how it is all too often implemented as a playground with no other function.

In a research museum such as Western Science Center, I see the role of exhibits as being to educate our visitor about whatever topic is covered by the exhibit. As we plan an exhibit, the first question we ask is “What is our story?” Whatever that story is, each component of the exhibit should contribute to the story. In many ways, developing an exhibit is like developing a screenplay from a novel. There may be great ideas in the novel that just don’t work as part of the screenplay; they are too tangential to the main story, or they take up so much time that they pull attention away from the main theme. In exhibit design, we make the same types of choices. The story of science is huge (essentially infinite), complex, and deeply interconnected, and we only have 3,000 square feet to work with; there’s usually no room for extraneous components that don’t contribute to the theme.

This doesn’t mean an exhibit component can’t be fun! In fact, it should be; who wants to see a movie based on a screenplay that tells its story thoroughly, but with no drama, comic relief, or variety of any kind? Exhibit components should be engaging and (usually) fun, but they still need to contribute to the story.

That’s where my issues with sandboxes arise. The way they are often implemented, they do a great job being fun and engaging, but not so much being informative. If some of our visitors are going to spend half of their time in the exhibit at the sandbox, they should at least have the opportunity to learn from it.

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Building the sandbox – you can see the fossil horse cast here before it was covered with foam crumbles.

To that end, we’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what a sandbox can offer to our story, and testing out ways to make it more informative. Brett and I have spent a lot of time looking at sandboxes at other museums, and have seen some that were pure playgrounds and others that were well integrated into the larger exhibit themes.

In our exhibit, we’re using the sandbox in several different ways. We’re focusing on the hominin diversity at Olduvai Gorge, which is a major part of our overall human evolution theme; Homo sapiens represents just one branch of a formerly much more diverse clade. As a second order concept, we want to get across that hominin remains are almost always fragmentary, but that it’s still possible to make identifications and infer relationships, behaviors, etc. from fragments (a lot of people have difficulty accepting how much we can infer from limited data). So we’ll have exercises where the visitor has to identify the specimens they uncover and determine things like the minimum number of individuals. (As an additional twist, every few weeks the contents of the sandbox will change; repeat visitors won’t necessarily find the same things every time.) Young children will still be able to play in the sandbox and have a good time moving sand around, but we hope their older siblings, parents, and grandparents will be able to take part as well, and learn some things about hominin history at the same time.

A Study in Case Studies

by Erik Ozolins, Professor of Anthropology at Mt. San Jacinto College

Since the semester ended last month, I thought I should provide an update on the internship class in which the students participated. Of the 7 students who registered for the class, 6 completed the semester, all earning passing grades. The 6 students wrote numerous pages on the various fossil hominin species, as well as a number of other more specific pieces of information. We are currently calling these special interest components “case studies” and as of now they include interesting aspects of paleoanthropology such as Acheulean Tools or Shanidar I.

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Shanidar I. Image Source.

I believe the identification of these “case studies” was one of the most valuable aspects of the student internship class. At this point we are not sure how much of what the students wrote about each of the fossil species will ultimately get into the exhibit. The student interns and a few others (who have now started working with us but were unable to take the class) are currently working to try to turn their pages of research into panel size pieces of information for museum guests.

During our regular meetings with the Museum staff, however, we would have the students share their favorite parts of their research and as we discussed their ideas and discoveries we realized that we wanted to spotlight many of these specific stories. These are the case studies. They are the surprising, engrossing, humorous or disturbing stories that are associated with paleoanthropology, but they are also the interesting stories that will connect with the museum guests.  These are often the stories that I like to highlight in my college classes, that I think make the information accessible to my students.

As summer is moving along we are still meeting. As I mentioned, the students are working on putting their information into panel form. Over the course of the semester, I had the class and the grade to hold over their head. Now, with the semester being over, the students are working without that incentive. They appear equally interested and driven as during the semester. At this point, they are as invested in this project as the museum is and as I am. We are also meeting and discussing some of the other, more interactive, aspects of the exhibit. I am not going to tell you what they are yet, but rest assured if we can do what we want to do, they will be very cool!

The Search for Inspiration

by J.M Sandlin, Museum Intern

Last April I wrote my first blog post for the Western Science Center. In it I confessed the excitement and uncertainty I felt about building a hominin exhibit from scratch. The post’s title, “All In,” reflected not only my personal commitment to the project, but also the enthusiastic participation of my fellow student-interns. Now that preparations for the exhibition are well underway, I’d like to talk a little about the research and brain-storming that has enabled us to achieve this stage of development.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the exhibit’s basic trajectory had been selected prior to any student involvement. Our job, then, was twofold: first, to reconstruct the long and complicated evolutionary journey from tree-dwellers to builders of skyscrapers and space stations; and second, to come up with engaging and visually appealing ways in which to present that information to the general public.

To date, our modus operandi has been more or less as follows. Under the joint supervision of college and museum officials, each student-intern has taken on one or more hominin species as personal research projects. At regular intervals, we have present the fruits of our labor to the entire exhibition team, offering insights and suggestions to be discussed by the group writ large.

Of course not all scientific study takes place in labs, libraries, or in the virtual halls of the World Wide Web. A couple of months ago, for example, most of the exhibit team took a road trip to the Museum of Man in San Diego. It’s the perfect place to get an overview of hominin evolution as well as some ideas about display possibilities.

In crafting an exhibit, however, it’s not our objective to emulate the work of others. Rather, we’re actively striving to gather as much information as we can from the best and brightest sources, then share that knowledge in ways that make sense for local audiences. It’s a balancing act which every museum, large or small, must engage with to a certain extent. But though the road ahead remains fairly long, I’m increasingly confident we’ll be able to offer the public something that’s simultaneously worthwhile and complementary to other California museums.

Wish us luck!

 

Museum Marketing 101: Science is Cool

by Brittney Stoneburg, WSC Marketing & Events Associate

Insert Exhibit Name Here has been floating around the museum blogosphere for a few months now, and I help keep this blog running, coordinate posts, and come up with all of the (extremely witty) titles.

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My mugshot for #MuseumSelfieDay

I like to think I have a unique perspective to offer when it comes to this exhibit. My academic background isn’t in science; I graduated with an English degree in 2012. However, I’ve always had a love for science, natural history, and the like, which eventually led me to the Western Science Center as a volunteer and later as a staff member. It can be intimidating to walk into a room full of professional scientists when you don’t have even a hint of a scientific background. I can’t really offer any insight on the stone making abilities of early man, or the evolutionary line of Neanderthals – but I can listen, and learn.

In a meeting, when the students are discussing the finer points of hominin behavior, I’m thinking: how are we going to present this information to the public? What’s our social media campaign going to look like? How can we get people to not only understand, but to care? I’ve often explained my role as the person who isn’t doing the actual science, but who helps explains why the science is cool! I’ve found my position at the museum to be a great marriage between my passion for natural history and my skills as an editor, writer, and former journalist, and it has been especially fun to pour my efforts into Insert Exhibit Name Here for the past few months.

Projects like this blog allow us to give visitors to the museum an inside look into the process of exhibit design, something they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. An exhibit never just springs out of the ether, fully formed and ready to dazzle visitors with knowledge. It is the culmination of the hard work and dedication of dozens of people, toiling behind the scenes to explain, interpret, and present.

Normally, visitors to the museum don’t see any of that; they just see the finished product. But with blogs like this one, we can engage our community before the exhibit has even opened, and invite the public to be a part of the process. What better way to get people excited about science?

Working with the students throughout the semester has been an eye opening experience for me. They each have so much interest and energy invested in the topic, and I’m sure that will be evident throughout the exhibit when it opens this fall. That kind of passion for science can’t help but bleed through!

 

Between a Rock & a Hard Place: Lithic Tools

by Rebecca Byrnes, Museum Intern

My section of the exhibit, as stated in my previous entry, will focus on Homo habilis as well as Homo erectus, and I’ve chosen to have one of the most prominent features in the exhibit to be about stone tool making.

I first learned about stone tool creation in my archaeology courses this semester. Though I’d heard brief descriptions of lithic (stone) tools, I’d never been introduced to how they’re manufactured. In archaeology class I watched a video featuring Bruce Bradley, one of the best specialists on lithic manufacturing. The tools needed for the job are simple- a hammer stone or antler, and a type of stone that breaks in a particular pattern.  I was amazed to hear of the very specific cone-shaped breakage found when hitting a piece of obsidian. This shape of breakage is termed as being “conchoidal.” Bradley was able to predict exactly what the flake would look like, which was a feat I thought impossible.

Often when we hear of hominins making stone tools, we believe that it’s a relatively easy process. We figure you bang on a bit of stone for a while and when it looks about right, you go off and slay some large animal. I must admit that I also believed this before studying anthropology, but this is definitely not the case.

In my archaeology lab class I had the unique opportunity to try to manufacture my own tool. I was given a brick and some sand along with a plethora of raw materials. I selected for myself some shell, bone, and rock as I had recently seen a picture of bone beads and stone projectile points and felt inspired.

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I sat down and considered my approach. I concluded that my first step would be to break the rock into a more manageable piece. So I hit it with a rock. The rock shattered, leaving me flabbergasted and having to now pick up the shards of its remains. I then began the shaping portion, something I assumed would be rather easy.

It wasn’t.

I tried sanding it and using a small hammer stone to break off smaller bits, to no avail.

“Well, I didn’t want a projectile point anyway,” I said in a defeated tone, placing the rock down and picking up bone. So I sat there for the remainder of class sanding a little piece of bone against a brick. By the end of two classes I had a piece of bone exactly the same size as before with a slightly smooth edge and a brick that had been substantially sanded down.

What I’m trying to describe here is that it’s simply marvelous to stop and consider the complex stone tools found at some of these sites. The hand axes found with H. erectus specimens are so amazing when you take into consideration the skills needed to complete such a difficult task. This is why I want to make lithics such a prominent piece of the exhibit. I hope that through the design of the exhibit the museum is able to illustrate how astonishing and impressive tool making really is in a way that sticks with the visitors.

An Educator’s Perspective

by Brett Dooley, MSJC Professional Development Coordinator

The students and scientists involved with this exhibit have already shared their experiences. I come with a slightly different perspective, which I’d like to share. I am married to Alton, and thus have been around museums and discussing exhibits with him for over 15 years, but this is the first time I have been “in the trenches” for an exhibit design. I am a teacher, having taught elementary, middle, high school, and currently community college, and I have a research interest in geoscience education. The perspective I bring is a focus through these lenses. What I see in this collaboration are the myriad ways all of the participants are benefiting from the project, along with a few ways it could be even better.

Since I’m married to the big guy, I’ll start with what he and Erik seem to be getting out of this. In these two you have a tremendous amount of knowledge but not in the same fields. What links them are the ties between physical anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, most significantly surrounding evolution. The excitement and enthusiasm they bring presents itself through series of positive feedback discourses, which are rather amusing to watch. One of them will make a comment, which sparks an idea in the other, who then rambles off on a somewhat relevant tangent, both of them with richer notions of exhibit design or content for the conversation.

Meanwhile, the students, along with the benefits derived from conducting their independent research, have the opportunity to witness these conversations. At times they ask questions or make comments, but generally they sit back and listen. This is, however, not simple, passive learning. What the students have the opportunity to witness is the true nature of science!

IMG_4495Science, for all the stereotypes that scientists are socially awkward, is a field that relies heavily on communication, collaboration, and creativity. People think artists are creative and scientists are logical. Well, okay, scientists tend to be logical, but the field also involves a great deal of innate curiosity and creativity. How else could one come to understand all of the new discoveries and constantly think of new questions and new problems to solve? The students are seeing an exhibit come together, and doing extensive research about a few species of hominins, but more significantly, they are experiencing science. They are seeing, some for the first time, that they are not alone or strange for their love or passion for learning about long extinct organisms. They are getting to see the tangible rewards for and value in the research they are doing, knowing the children and adults in their community will benefit from what they are doing.

This semester has been exciting. I look forward to its continuation in the summer and fall, to observing the various interactions, and even adding my two cents every now and then.