They Found some bones to pick
Discovery of mastodon remains prompts research by farm family
By VIRGINIA GUST
COLON – If there is one thing that can draw a family together with a single purpose, it’s a bunch of old bones.
Old bones have sent the Ansel Wattles family to museums, prompted talks with paleontologists and caused a search for information about prehistoric creatures ever since the skeletal remains of a mastodon were discovered on the family farm.
“We’ve been studying up on mastodons,” said Wattles, looking at the rows of weary brown bones arranged on boards in a building behind the family’s home on Jackson Road. “When Spring comes, we’re going back to the field and look for more bones.”
Digs to date have turned up 10,000 year old teeth, leg bones, ribs, vertebrae and pieces of skull and tusk that once belonged to the elephant-like vegetarian.
It was a seven-inch-long tooth that started it all. Wattles found it last fall while combining in a field of soybeans.
“I saw some white showing against the green soybeans, it was sticking up among the plants,” he said. “I didn’t know what it was, but I knew it belong to something that hadn’t been around for quite a while.”
Wattles brought the relic to the house and his son, Evan, 12, took it to school. The ball started rolling, when Evan’s teacher, Paul Blake, took the tooth to Kingman Museum of Natural History in Battle Creek, where it was verified as having belonged to a mastodon.
Carbon-14 test of other mastodon remains found in Michigan date them as being at least 10,000 years old.
Mastodons were a sturdy lot. They roamed in herds more that a million years ago, but by the time of the Ice Age rolled around only a few herds remained.
They were formidable-looking creatures with great curved tusks and long hair covering their six-ton frames. From the mastodons developed the mammoth and, much later, the elephant.
Their remains have been found in postglacial swamps, peat bogs and muck.
After the Wattles’ initial find, they returned to the field to search for more. Six more teeth and other bones were uncovered only two feet below the surface in an area bout eight feet in diameter.
Many of the bones had been broken into fragments by plows that had worked the field for more that a half century. “The bones were close to the surface and that’s why the tillage over the years wrecked much of the find,” he said.
He believes the4 animal drowned while walking in a swamp, which is now muck land that covers much of the Wattles 520-acre farm.
The teeth of the Wattles’ mastodon have heavy grinding surfaces. They are badly wore from chewing the vast amounts of prehistoric shrubs and grasses needed to satisfy the tummy of the ancient creature, whose heritage goes back some 40 million years to the first mastodons, who were the size of pigs.
Wattles learned to identify the bones during a visit to the museum at the University of Michigan, where a complete skeleton is mounted “That’s how I got to know what we had,” he said.
Wattles said museum officials told him there have been about 160 mastodons found in Michigan, but none was a whole skeleton.
At first, a section of a tusk measuring about six feet long was found by a youth in Assyria. Two years later, mastodon bones were found at Fort Custer’s Eagle Lake by workers digging a ditch. In 1954, several bones were found in a marl pit near Spring port, and in 1960 a 13-year-old boy hunting turtles at Sherman Lake came across a jawbone where a channel had been dug two years earlier.
The largest bones in the Wattles’ collection are those of a front leg, and the longest bones are a pair of ribs. There is a bone the size of a large platter that Wattles said is a vertebra.
In a candy box are fragments of the mastodon’s great tusks, reduced over the centuries to nothing more than layers of curved bark.
There are several pieces of skull, surprisingly thin, which are smooth on one side and riddled with channels on the underside. Parts of the skull still are at the site, Wattles said.
Elsewhere in the storage building is a washtub filled with smaller bones about the size of tennis balls.
When weather permits it will be back in the mastodon digs for the Wattles, “We’ve got to go back and fool around there again,” Wattles said.