An ice age mastodon died nearly 100 miles from home in a bloody mating season battle in what today is northeast Indiana, reveals new research.
The primitive elephant relative’s astonishing life – from regular migrations to his final moments – has been retraced by scanning a 9. 5-foot banana-shaped right tusk.
Chemical analysis reveals the first complete evidence of an extinct animal’s behavior and movements.
The 8-ton creature, dubbed Buesching, was killed around 13,200 years ago, left mortally wounded after another mastodon’s tusk tip punctured the right side of its skull. The solitary wanderer trekked north to his summer breeding ground every year during his last three years. It may also have spent time exploring central and southern Michigan – more than 250 miles away.
Professor Joshua Miller, of the University of Cincinnati, said: “The result that is unique to this study is that for the first time, we’ve been able to document the annual overland migration of an individual from an extinct species.
“Using new modelling techniques and a powerful geochemical toolkit, we’ve been able to show that large male mastodons like Buesching migrated every year to the mating grounds.”
The U.S. team used a bandsaw to cut a thin, lengthwise slab from the center of the tusk, which is longer and more preserved than the left. The researchers were able reconstruct landscape patterns during adolescence as well as the last years of adulthood.
The Buesching mastodon died in a battle over access to females at the age of 34, the researchers claimed.
Co-author Daniel Fisher, curator of Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan, said: “You’ve got a whole life spread out before you in that tusk.
“The growth and development of the animal, as well as its history of changing land use and changing behavior – all of that history is captured and recorded in the structure and composition of the tusk.”
Its original range was likely in central Indiana. Like modern-day elephants, the young male stayed close to home, separating from the female-led herd as an adolescent.
As a lone adult, Buesching traveled farther and more frequently, often covering nearly 20 miles in a month.
His use of the landscape also varied seasonally with a dramatic northward expansion in summer that included the mating grounds.
Miller said: “Every time you get to the warm season, the Buesching mastodon was going to the same place – bam, bam, bam – repeatedly. The clarity of that signal was unexpected and really exciting.”
Under harsh Pleistocene climates, migration and other movements were critical for reproductive success of mastodons and other large mammals, but little is known about how their geographic ranges and mobility fluctuated seasonally or changed with sexual maturity.
Techniques analyzing ratios of various forms, or isotopes, of the elements strontium and oxygen in ancient tusks are helping scientists unlock some secrets.
Mastodons, mammoths and modern elephants are part of a group of large, flexible-trunked mammals called proboscideans. They have long, elongated upper incisor teeth which emerge from the skulls as their tusks. In each year of the animal’s life, new growth layers are deposited upon those already present, laid down in alternating light and dark bands. They are very similar to the annual rings of a tree. The growth layers in a tusk resemble an inverted stack of ice cream cones, with the time of birth and death recorded at the tip and base respectively.
Mastodons were herbivores that browsed on trees and shrubs. As they grew, chemical elements in their food and drinking water were incorporated into their body tissues – including the tusks.
Strontium and oxygen isotopes in tusk growth layers enabled the researchers to reconstruct Buesching’s travels as an adolescent and as a reproductively active adult.
Three dozen samples were collected from the adolescent years – during and after departure from the matriarchal herd – and 30 samples from the animal’s final years.
A tiny drill bit, operated under a microscope, ground half a millimeter from the edge of individual growth layers, each of which covered a period of one to two months. The powder that was produced by this milling operation was collected and chemically analysed.
The ratios of the isotopes within the tusk gave geographic fingerprints which were then matched with specific places on maps that showed how strontium moves across the landscape. The
Oxygen tusk layers were formed at a time when there are pronounced seasonal fluctuations.
Both types of samples were taken from the same growth layer, allowing for precise conclusions as to where Buesching traveled and at what time.
A spatial computer model was used to estimate how far the animal was moving and identify the probable locations.
Miller stated: “The strontium-isotope geochemistry field is an up-and-coming instrument for paleontology and archaeology as well as historical ecology and evenforensic biology. It’s flourishing.
“But we only scratched the surface. .”
Next, analyze the tusks from another individual, either a male or female.
Buesching is named after Dan Buesching, who stumbled onto its remains at his peat farm near Fort Wayne in 1998. A full-size, fiberglass-cast skeleton can be seen at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor.
Mastodons are cousins of elephants and mammoths. They died out about 10,000 years ago. The study is in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
This story was provided to Newsweek by Zenger News.
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