- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

NORTH JAVA, N.Y. The tooth lay on the ground. It was big enough to trip over.
Bob Moffett had retreated into western New York's hilly uplands after a harrowing tour in Vietnam. In 1999, he finally picked out the perfect spot on his 60 acres of abandoned farmland to erect a log house: a wooded knoll overlooking a bog he's converting into a trout pond.
As bulldozers carved a 16-foot-deep hole in the bog that slowly filled up with underground springs, Mr. Moffett stumbled on a "one-in-a-million rock" next to a mound of muck. The more he studied it, the more he realized it once belonged in an ancient animal's mouth.
"I kept hold of the thing almost for a whole year," said the 54-year-old letter carrier, confessing to his early fears about "what to do without being overrun by society."
The monstrous molar 6 inches long from front to back, 5 inches high and 3 inches wide with a distinct gum line, roots and a conical-shaped enamel top came from a mastodon.
The squat, elephantlike beasts covered with coarse, reddish-brown hair averaged 6 feet to 10 feet tall at the shoulder and 15 feet from tusk to tail. They survived until the waning days of the last ice age some 10,000 years ago.
Various theories are posited for their extinction: a violent shift in climate, diseases such as tuberculosis, an influx of human hunters or a blend of calamitous forces that also wiped out mammoths, sloths, camels and other heavyweight mammals across North America.
In the fossil record, mastodons are not scarce. Vestiges of at least 1,500 of them, ranging from tusk tips to virtually whole skeletons, nestle in museums across the United States. Most have been discovered in kettle ponds and marshes in the Great Lakes region.
One unusual aspect of the mastodon dug up near this crossroads hamlet 40 miles southeast of Buffalo could be its sex.
An excavation team recovered 20 percent of the animal, notably an ivory tusk, neck vertebrae, toe, ankle and wrist bones, skull fragments and a femur. Although they're still not certain the pelvis is missing paleontologists suspect it's a female.
Standing 8 feet tall with 4-inch-diameter tusks, it's about three-quarters the size of a big male. And judging by its ossified growth plates, it appears to be an adult.
"Probably no more than a quarter of mastodon specimens seem to be females," said Dan Fisher, curator of paleontology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. "I'm trying to be as cautious as I can, not overstating the case for this disparity. Obviously, there's more careful work that could be done to quantify this."
More assuredly, Mr. Fisher said, an even smaller proportion of skeletons complete enough to be reassembled and exhibited are thought to be female.
The sex bias throws up a tantalizing question: Were young-adult males, forced out of a matriarchal herd to fend for themselves, more vulnerable to accidents and attacks, more liable to end up mired in watery graves and thereby more likely to remain preserved?
Mr. Fisher thinks hunting pressure from humans swarming into North America from Asia some 12,000 years ago might have been intense enough to explain the extinction of big mammals.
"The bottom line, I think, is it was easier to sort of sneak up on and do in a solitary male mastodon," he said. "Are you going to go after one individual on the countryside or 10 that are here for their mutual defense?"
In some cases, the spoils could have been carved up in waterside habitats. Or butchered meat, stored in ponds in winter to prevent spoiling, might have floated away. "I think many sites we encounter are animals that were dealt with in some way by humans," Mr. Fisher said.
S. David Webb, curator of fossil vertebrates at the University of Florida in Gainesville, theorized that female mastodons would "basically stay out of trouble" by sticking together.
"But as is well-known certainly in living elephants, mature males hit a sort of hormonal fever pitch that drives them to do insane things and charge about," he said, adding that ancient ivory artwork suggests males were singled out for their bigger tusks.
Each Great Lakes state has located upward of 100 mastodon remains, led by Michigan with some 250 sites and Ohio and New York with close to 200 apiece.
"The mastodon is big and lumbering and awesome. We sort of like to think of it as New York's answer to dinosaurs," said Norton Miller, a paleobotanist at the New York State Museum in Albany, where a 273-bone mastodon skeleton dug up in 1866 looms in the lobby.
Possibly the richest mastodon tomb in New York was unearthed in Genesee County 40 miles from here. Since 1983, 11 partial skeletons have been found, three of them thought to be females, said Richard Laub of the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Unlike grass-grazing mammoths, mastodons probably chewed jack pines, white spruce and possibly fish. Because their teeth resemble those of humans, some early finders thought they'd stumbled upon the graves of giants.
"The woolly mammoth has a strictly typical elephant tooth. It's probably just an elephant with long hair," said Cornell University paleontologist John Chiment, who is supervising the dig here along with the Ithaca-based Paleontological Research Institution.
"The mastodon is a distant cousin with the same teeth found in pigs, bears or humans. Over the course of their life, they have 40 teeth but just four, six or eight at a time. And when they wear out their last tooth, they die of starvation."
Foot joints and vertebrae are being assessed for signs of tuberculosis or other diseases that might have affected fertility in females.
"If the animals were already in decline, not even replacing the normal death rate, then just a few hunters could have a tremendous impact," Mr. Chiment said. "But if it's a robust population, 100 people wandering through are not going to destroy a whole species."
He pictures mastodon herds dawdling in forested uplands, far from beaches or lakes where fossils survive.
Mr. Moffett, meantime, is still planning to hire Oneida Indians to build his dream house amid a stand of maple, cherry and ash.
An outdoors enthusiast, he takes pride in a federally designated wetland on his property that's been commandeered by beaver. The mastodon discovery, he said, "gives this piece of property a lot of significance, makes me realize we're just a grain of sand here."
On a wintry day, he'll sit on his hilltop, with its distant view of Buffalo, and imagine spying on a lone mastodon sipping from a glacial pond some 12,000 years ago.


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