Wilderness Underfoot: Mammoths galore

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11364041473353.jpg’, ”, ‘Jefferson’s mammoth – Mammuthus jeffersonii, shown walking through a winter marsh on the edge of a spruce parkland. This mammoth, as well as the Columbian mammoth, the woolly mammoth and the American mastodon roamed the Midwest during the Ice Age. All mammoths were vegetarian, spending most of their time foraging for grasses, flowering herbs, shrubs, and parts of trees.’);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11364041703353.jpg’, ”, ”);
StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//Auto-img-11364041803353.jpg’, ”, ”);

In Illinois, 2005 could go down as the ‘Year of the Mammoth’

Unlike the dinosaurs, whose remains have never been found in our state, fossils of mammoths and mastodons have been popping up all over the place. These magnificent Ice Age mammals—ancient relatives of the elephant—were once abundant throughout Illinois.

During the fall of 2005, paleontologist Jeffrey Saunders, chairman of geology at the Illinois State Museum in Springfield, was kept busy with new discoveries of mammoth and mastodon fossils. Teeth and tusks were being discovered in construction sites, at creeks, and in wetlands where water levels had receded because of the drought.

Saunders has served for three years as a consultant with students at Principia College, who are unearthing a 17,000-year-old mammoth that was found between two dormitories. About 80 mastodon sites and 60 mammoth sites have been found throughout Illinois. Saunders predicts as few as one in 10 Ice Age fossil discoveries is reported, so the actual number of sites is probably much higher.

Mammoth and mastodon fossils are typically found in glacial debris, such as rocks, sand, and windblown silt called “loess” (pronounced “luss”). The finely-grained loess deposits generally have the best preservation because this material was less abrasive than rocky glacial till.

The Ice Age (actually, the Pleistocene Epoch) started about 1.65 million years ago, and ended about 10,000 years ago. With the end of the Pleistocene came the extinction of all kinds of North American megafauna: mammoths and mastodons, saber-toothed cats, horses and tapirs, camels and llamas, giant ground sloths, giant beavers, and bears. Although the changing climate and evolving habitats may have helped bring about these extinctions, it is widely thought that human hunting delivered the final blow to Ice Age megafauna.

Today, we strive to learn as much as we can about mammoths and mastodons by observing modern elephants, examining fossils, and studying cave drawings of the creatures left by ancient humans.

From the Jan.4-10, 2006, issue

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