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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If You 3-D Print It, They Will Come

by Bo Cheshire, Museum Intern

My father fit the bill of ‘mechanically inclined’; when I was 12 he designed a hydraulic lift to attach a motorcycle to the side of an 18-wheeler, and in the basement of our house he designed and built neon light systems. He enjoyed working on motorcycles and cars, and loved to think about and understand how systems worked. I grew up watching him tinker.

This curiosity has extended to me through the lens of the natural world, but I also love engineering and technology. One could just ask my wife about the state of unfinished projects in my garage to get the full view of my obsessions, so getting the opportunity to utilize 3-D printing in conjunction with this exhibit is a dream come true.

The idea sprang from Professor Ozolins during out first meeting as a group in February. When the problem of how we might best exhibit specimens that we couldn’t get casts for was broached, he mentioned that we might be able to print them; I volunteered for the project immediately.

Professor Ozolins put me in contact with Dr. Nick Reeves, Professor of Biology and program manager for the STEM program at Mount San Jacinto College. Dr. Reeves, who has been gracious and generous with his time, was just as excited as I was to be printing hominin skulls. We met last month and he introduced me to the 5th generation Makerbot.

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The 5th generation Makerbot 3-D printer.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and user friendly the system was. In most cases it was as simple as uploading a file, providing a little editing and manipulation, review, and print. My initial run was a small block in order to train me on the software and provide a proof of concept that the technology indeed printed exactly what we asked it to.

Next, we set our sights on the Homo naledi specimen, perhaps the newest and most exciting find in paleoanthropology in the last couple years. To place that statement into perspective, the principal investigator for H. naledi, Dr. Lee Berger, was just named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for this year.

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The Makerbot software in action.

One of the great things Dr. Berger has done is provide all of his research and castings in an open source format. This allows wannabes like me to access the materials and print the models. So in order to assess the technology’s ability to deliver quality models, we selected a reconstruction of the H. naledi skull and shrunk it to 1/12th the original size. That initial printing went flawlessly, and encouraged, we decided it was time to scale up the model.

Our initial try at a full size H. naledi reconstruction was estimated to last 12 hours; both Professor Reeves and I were excited but cautiously optimistic. When I arrived the next day I found only the lower third of the specimen had printed. As with any technology there are bound to be hiccups. Undaunted, I checked all the potential error points and found that the full size model hadn’t completely loaded, leaving us with the bottom third. The printer had done exactly what it was supposed to.

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The first failed attempt.

After an update to the software, Professor Reeves loaded the printer for another run at the full size skull. Now estimated at 26 hours, it was set to run over a weekend. That Monday morning, I was full of anticipation, and after my first class I checked my email. Success!

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The finished 3-D printed skull.

Being able to utilize this technology is going to allow us to share an important new find in paleoanthropology with the community. It allows us to go beyond the photographs and drawings that we may have otherwise used and provide the people who visit something tangible, a piece of our collective heritage that you touch and examine for yourself. I’m excited for how we’re incorporating this work into the exhibit, and am looking forward to finding new innovative ways to utilize this technology.