An Ice Age mastodon died nearly 100 miles from home in a bloody mating season battle in what is today northeastern Indiana, new research reveals.
The astonishing life of the elephant’s primitive relative — from regular migrations to his last moments — has been traced 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, named Buesching, was killed about 13,200 years ago, left mortally wounded after the tusk tip of another mastodon pierced the right side of its skull.
The lone hiker traveled annually for the last three years of his life to his favorite summer mating area, from his winter home to the north. It may also have spent time exploring central and southern Michigan – over 250 miles away.
Professor Joshua Miller, of the University of Cincinnati, said: “The unique result of this study is that for the first time we have been able to document the annual overland migration of an individual of an extinct species.
“Using new modeling techniques and a powerful geochemical toolkit, we were able to demonstrate that large male mastodons such as Buesching migrated to the mating grounds every year.”
The US team used a band saw to cut a thin, longitudinal plate from the center of the tusk, which is longer and better preserved than the left one. They were able to reconstruct changing landscape use patterns during two key periods: adolescence and the last years of adulthood.
The Buesching mastodon died at age 34 in a battle for female access, the researchers claimed.
Co-author Daniel Fisher, curator of the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan, said, “You have a whole life spread out in front of you in that tusk.
“The animal’s growth and development, as well as its history of changing land use and changing behavior — all of that history is recorded and recorded in the structure and composition of the tusk.”
The original range was probably in central Indiana. Like modern elephants, the young male stayed close to home and separated from the female-led herd as an adolescent.
As a lone adult, Buesching traveled farther and more often, often nearly 20 miles in a month.
His use of the landscape also varied seasonally with dramatic northward expansion in the summer, including the mating grounds.
Miller said, “Every time you came into the warm season, the Buesching mastodon would repeatedly go to the same place — bam, bam, bam —. The clarity of that signal was unexpected and really exciting.”
Under harsh Pleistocene climates, migration and other movements were critical to the reproductive success of mastodons and other large mammals, but little is known about how their geographic range and mobility fluctuated or changed seasonally with sexual maturity.
Techniques that analyze the ratios of different forms, or isotopes, of the elements strontium and oxygen in ancient tusks are helping scientists unravel some secrets.
Mastodons, mammoths and modern elephants are part of a group of large mammals with flexible trunks called proboscideans.
They have elongated upper incisors that emerge from their skulls like tusks. In each year of the animal’s life, new growth layers are deposited on the already existing ones, deposited in alternating light and dark bands.
They resemble the annual rings of a tree. The growth layers in a tusk resemble an inverted stack of ice cream cones, with time of birth and death recorded at the tip and at the base, respectively.
Mastodons were herbivores that browsed trees and shrubs. As they grew, chemical elements in their food and drinking water were absorbed into their body tissues — including the tusks.
Using strontium and oxygen isotopes in tusk growth layers, the researchers were able 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 last years of the animal.
A tiny bur, operated under a microscope, ground half a millimeter from the edge of individual growth layers, each covering a period of one to two months.
The powder produced during this milling process was collected and chemically analyzed.
Proportions of isotopes in the tusk yielded geographic fingerprints that were linked to specific locations on maps that showed how strontium changes in the landscape.
Oxygen isotope values, which show pronounced seasonal fluctuations, helped the researchers determine the time of year when a specific tusk layer formed.
Both types of samples were collected from the same narrow growth layers — allowing specific conclusions to be drawn about where Buesching traveled — and when.
A spatial computer model was used to estimate how far the animal was moving and to identify the possible locations.
Miller said, “The field of strontium isotope geochemistry is a really emerging tool for paleontology, archaeology, historical ecology and even forensic biology. It’s thriving.
“But really, we’ve just scratched the surface of what this information can tell us.”
The next step is to analyze the tusks of another individual – another male or a female.
Buesching is named after Dan Buesching, who stumbled upon his peat farm near Fort Wayne in 1998.
An all-fiberglass molded skeleton is on display 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.