Glaciers & Giants

“Mastodons on South Hill” Courtesy Paleontological Research Institution

If a 200-year-old barn collapses and is torn down, it may be forgotten before long, especially if another building fills the void. A record of the barn may survive, of course, in photographs. It is not so easy to visualize the world thousands of years ago in Rochester and the Finger Lakes region, where evidence of human life is scarce and many of the ancient animals are now extinct. The Rochester Museum & Science Center (RMSC) has recreated and interpreted that amazing world, where large creatures roamed and glaciers dominated the landscape for thousands of years.

Using the skeletal remains of two local prehistoric mastodon specimens as a starting point, the RMSC has mounted a family-friendly array of interactive displays in a long-term exhibit, Expedition Earth, to illustrate a world inhabited by these ancestors of modern elephants, other more familiar mammals, and early human beings. “Glaciers & Giants,” which opened in January 2006, is the first phase of Expedition Earth, slated for completion
in the fall of 2007.

Local roots
The exhibit was inspired to a large degree by the discovery in the 1990s of two mastodon skeletons not far from Rochester. In August of 1994, Vaughan Buchholz of East Bloomfield, Ontario County, found he couldn’t keep his swimming pool where he was raising trout free of algae, so he decided to dig a pond on the wettest acre of his 13-acre field. He and his wife, Becky, suddenly and unexpectedly joined an elite group of property owners when a backhoe operator uncovered bones of a mastodon buried seven feet below the surface of their land.

It wasn’t long before the couple made contact with Dr. George McIntosh, a paleontologist and director of collections at the RMSC, who confirmed that the discovery was a mastodon, based on the characteristically large bones. “Mastodons are so big you can’t misidentify them,” explains McIntosh, adding that a typical adult mastodon could weigh 4 to 6 tons and measure 8 to 10 feet high at the shoulder.

McIntosh had been on a similar scene three years earlier after a discovery was made just south of Avon in Livingston County. At the time, the pond side of Farview Golf Course’s 18th green was being excavated off New York Route 39. “It was unusual timing,” admits McIntosh of the closeness of the two finds. In New York state there have been only 37 documented discoveries since 1922, and some of those limited to only a single mastodon tooth. These two nearby finds offered many more bones, although neither was a complete skeleton. For three years, the Farview mastodon was stored and studied at the State University of New York at Geneseo and then transferred to the RMSC in January 1994. Only eight months later McIntosh got the call about the East Bloomfield specimen.

What the bones reveal
RMSC now owns both the Farview and East Bloomfield mastodons. To discover the age of each, McIntosh called on colleague Dr. Dan Fisher, a paleontologist from the University of Michigan and a leading authority on mastodons, to carry out Carbon-14 dating.

The Avon specimen is 11,600 years old, and the East Bloomfield mastodon ranges in age from 11,000 to 12,000 years old. Both have been identified as male mastodons, with the East Bloomfield beast determined to be in his 40s at the time of his death and the Farview animal a youthful 20-something. These approximations were made based on their teeth and bones.

Many of these remains can be seen for the first time side-by-side in the RMSC exhibit. Their femurs (rear leg bones), vertebrae (back bones), metatarsals (foot bones) and humeri (front leg bones) can be viewed for comparison. One skull and a portion of a tusk are also exhibited, and skeletal diagrams highlight bone location for easy identification. Both a large-scale replica skeleton of a mastodon plus a fully articulated hairy mastodon tower over visitors from a diorama that simulates the animals’ natural habitat.

Exhibit planners know that sometimes a mastodon is mistaken for another large, extinct mammal, the woolly mammoth. The exhibit explains the differences through visuals, text, and a comparison of their very different (and large) teeth. Unlike the forest-loving mastodon, the mammoth preferred living near the retreating glaciers, where it ate grass and grazed in open tundra. The mammoth’s teeth had hard ridges for grinding dry vegetation, whereas the mastodon had blunt, coned teeth for its preferred diet of herbs and leaves. The mastodon’s tusks were also less curved than those of the mammoth, and are sometimes compared to the Asian elephant in appearance.

Debra Jacobson, the museum’s director of marketing and community affairs, says younger visitors like to spend time in a fabricated dig site where they can uncover replicated mastodon bones and then identify them by looking at the mounted mastodon. The safety of children is a priority, so the site is supervised and protective goggles are mandatory apparel. The vertical “wall dig” ensures visitors in wheelchairs can also participate in this hands-on activity.

Take a walk through a glacier
Mastodons roamed North America for over a million years during the Pleistocene Epoch, or Ice Age, before disappearing. “Glaciers & Giants,” as the name suggests, also focuses on the impact of glaciers on this region. “The last time a glacier bulldozed across the region 27,000 years ago, it changed the course of the Genesee River,” explains the exhibit text. Visitors can venture into an icy blue cave, experience a drop in the temperature, and hear the sound of dripping water.

Inside the walk-through cave, Jacobson points out the glacier’s impact on the area. A giant sheet of ice more than a mile tall, 20 times higher than Rochester’s landmark Xerox Tower, appears over the city’s skyline in one of the exhibit’s 20 interactive displays. Visitors can also track the continental glaciers as they retreated from this region, and observe the formations of bodies of water like the Finger Lakes. A hands-on demonstration shows how water forms ice crystals. The exhibit also features a narrow passage leading to a small-scale ice cave, where young children can explore independently.

In an adjacent area, it is possible to take a virtual tour of Mendon Ponds Park near Pittsford and see evidence the glacier left behind, like kettle lakes, glacial erratics, and moraines. The exhibit offers audio explanations of how each was formed, along with animated aerial views. As the glacier retreated northward, stagnant ice broke off and was buried in the sediment that had accumulated. Kettle lakes came about when these blocks of ice melted.

Erratics are rocks that were transported from their places of origin and left when the ice melted. Moraines are ridges of till, or rock debris, which piled up and were dumped along the ridge of the ice.

Throughout “Glaciers & Giants,” the goal is to encourage adults and children to put the story together themselves through the available tools. A good example is the display of skeletal fragments of animals that lived during the Pleistocene era, such as the mammoth, wolf, caribou, and peccary (a wild pig-like animal). After testing one’s knowledge of what bones belong to which creature, a push of a button illuminates the correct response.

Piecing the past together
Dinosaurs are also touched upon in the RMSC exhibit. There is a full-scale Albertosaurus skeleton with fossilized dinosaur tracks included to illustrate its presence 65 to 200 million years ago. Theories on the extinction of dinosaurs is also presented through interactive audiovisuals.

What was the impact on both the environment and humans after the glaciers receded? Several dioramas focus on the evolving varieties of plant life found in forests. To encourage an understanding of changing human perspectives on the natural world, voices of people from four different time periods can be heard. The visitor listens to words spoken by an early hunter who arrived soon after the glacier left this area, a Seneca woman, a resident of “Rochesterville” in the early 19th century, and a contemporary Rochesterian.

The exhibit’s multi-sensory approach imaginatively bridges the gap between the present and life during this area’s prehistoric era. There are many questions still to ponder, one of the more pressing being, “What happened to mastodons?” Experts speculate that excessive human hunting may have caused their disappearance. To illustrate that particular theory, one of the exhibit’s large colorful murals shows Paleo-Indians gathered in a forest clearing with a slaughtered mastodon. In the nearby exhibit cases, the actual bones show evidence of tool marks left from butchering by humans. Another theory to their extinction includes climates change.

It could happen to you
Finding a mastodon on your property is hardly an everyday experience. On one level, it may kindle an appreciation of our area’s long history. “It opened up a window into the past,” reflects Vaughn Buchholz. In the 12 years since his discovery, the Kodak retiree has enjoyed speaking about it to members of service clubs, historical societies, school children, and at an annual conservation camp for kids. He has learned a lot through researching the subject, although he is quick to say he is no authority on mastodons. “It’s been a happy part of our lives,” agrees Becky.

The discovery even offered the couple their “15 minutes of fame” when the crew of “Good Morning America” came to their backyard to interview the two of them along with McIntosh. This 1994 interview can also be viewed in the exhibit.

McIntosh says he frequently receives calls from people who have found bones on their property. “If you’re digging in your garden and uncover something close to the surface, it’s unlikely to be a mastodon, although that’s not impossible,” says the scientist. Often the bones turn out to belong to horses or cows.

“If a contractor is down 6 to 9 feet [in the ground and discovers bones], we’ll be out pretty fast,” predicts McIntosh. He cautions against removing them because their configuration provides important evidence to the scientists.

Besides the Rochester Museum and Science Center, McIntosh suggests residents in the Finger Lakes and western New York areas contact either of the following:
Dr. Warren Allmon
Paleontological Research Institution
1259 Trumansburg Road
Ithaca. NY 14850
607-273-6623

Dr. Richard  Laub, Curator of Geology
Buffalo Museum of Science
1020 Humboldt Parkway
Buffalo, NY 14211
716-896-5200


by Laurel C. Wemett
Laurel C. Wemett owns a gift shop named Cat’s in the Kitchen and lives in Canandaigua. Laurel is also a correspondent for Messenger-Post Newspapers in Canandaigua.