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.

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