Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/January 1883/A Mastodon in an Old Beater-Meadow



ON the 7th of June, 1882, a farmer, while cutting a drain through a meadow on his farm at Freehold, New Jersey, observing the appearance of bones, stopped the workmen, and sent for me to inspect the place. This I did the next morning. Approaching the spot, I found it was a deep depression in the farm, and the site suggested the possibility of an ancient beaver-dam. But in that case a stream should be seen flowing through the middle. There was none there. I learned afterward that formerly there was just such a stream, but that in order to utilize the meadow it had been diverted to one side of the valley or depression, and the channel thus left had been filled up by taking from the banks or higher slopes; after this it was planted with corn. I found a drain about eighteen inches wide in progress of construction across this meadow. The ditcher had literally cut through a buried monster precisely at a point which took away a part of the bases of the tusks and some portion of the face of the animal. It was indeed a veritable mastodon. Digging under my direction was at once resumed. Both tusks were soon fully exposed, and the left one was successfully uncovered and removed to the side of the drain. Before removal I took exact measurements, and fortunate it was that I did, for in a very few minutes after being put on the dry ground it separated or unfolded, like the concentric layers of an onion, and in a few minutes more began crumbling into powder. The concentric rings thus separated were uniformly a quarter of an inch thick, so that these unfoldings gave no hint of the animal's age, for the ivory was so fine and compact that no smaller divisions were discernible. This splendid ivory was in consistency like new white cheese, and the surfaces of separation gave the precise feeling to the fingers as when they are passed over a freshly cut piece of soft cheese. The left tusk was removed almost entire; the right tusk was nearly all removed, and fragments of both were secured, though very soft and unsatisfactory, for upon drying even these selected fragments crumbled to powder.

Four molars were obtained, which were found in exact relative position to the tusks. So soft were the bones that all further digging only provoked sighs of disappointment. Of course, the position of the two tusks indicated that of the skull. We tried carefully to uncover the head so as to save it, but in vain. The spade took up a spit of dark substance which proved to be the arched forehead of the brute, which also crumbled away after a short time. But a wonderful story that short time told. This high-vaulted forehead might please some amateur phrenologist, but as a cerebral indicator of intellect it was an immense fraud. It was the genuine elephant forehead, "only more so." On cleaning it, by gently pulling out certain tufts of fine roots and vegetable fiber, this great piece of bone was literally honeycombed with air-cells, each one big enough to hold a hickory-nut. These were the extraordinarily developed frontal sinuses.

But a word about the tusks. The two were in the normal position, as of the animal lying on its right side, with the back toward the ancient stream. The ditcher had nearly destroyed one of the tusks by attempting to get it out before my arrival. The upper one, that is, the left tusk, had lost all that portion which had been cut through by the ditching. There was in the side of the ditch enough visible before the uncovering to show that the destruction had taken away much of the base, being nearly all that part of the tusk containing the pulp-cavity. The surface of the soil was carefully removed, and measurements taken. The part uncovered was four feet four inches long. Between this and the place of insertion in the skull was about eighteen inches—and for insertion two feet should be allowed—when the entire length of each tusk would be seven feet eight inches, and the weight of the ivory in each hardly less than two hundred pounds. The tusks had a slight upward curve.

The digging was continued next day, the whole area being examined. The peculiar dark stain covered a space not less than fifteen feet in length and six feet in width. It was evident that the head was inflected toward the chest. It is pretty certain, then, that a line taken from the base of the trunk to the root of the tail would not be less than seventeen feet.

The burial-place of this great beast is to me of intense interest. The body lay on its side, on a hard sand bottom, the upper parts being surrounded and but thinly covered with muck, or vegetable peat. I am satisfied that it died on the dry bank of an ancient stream. Now came a singular discovery which served as a key to the difficulty. Lying on the skeleton at different parts were the sticks or heart remains of red cedars (Juniperus Virginiana, L.); they were beaver-logs. Here a singular piece of experience came to my aid. I had quite recently discovered and studied the details of two fossil beaver-dams but two miles west of this place, and the physical features of this mastodon's burying-place were in all respects indicative of a former beaver-dam. In fact, no other hypothesis could account for these sticks, with others of different woods, which have been exhumed in this meadow. It is observable that a pond made by beavers has in time its meadow as a natural consequence, and that, after the pond is deserted by these animals, the dam breaks down slowly, and, as the pond area decreases, the swamp area increases, and a growth of vegetation sets in which becomes the peat-bog, afterward the meadow. The place where the mastodon lay in course of time became covered by the waters of the pond, for beavers keep lengthening their dam to increase the area of the pond, and only stop so doing when the natural opportunities of the situation are exhausted. Of course, it was only the skeleton of the beast which was buried, and the bones might have been there long before peat-growth began over them. This explains the decomposition of the bones, for peat is antiseptic, and they should have been preserved, but it was a slow burial, and slow decay had long before set in. A curious fact seems to me to confirm the above. The huge air-cells in the bones and the great pulp-cavities of the tusks were packed solid with vegetable matter, but so unlike the imbedding peat as to be remarkable. This packing, which filled the slightest crevices and open spaces in the bones, was in every case root-fibers. I took out of the pulp-cavity of one tusk a compact cone of these rootlets. I have seen precisely the same thing when opening a small drain-pipe which had become choked with the roots of a tree.

Two facts have much impressed me—the great geological antiquity of the mastodons as a race, and the very recent existence of the individual we are discussing. The race began in Miocene time; this individual lived in the Quaternary age, and well up into the soil-making period. There is little if any differentiation of the molars. The cusps, or teats, on the crown are high and prominent, although I think it must have been one of the very last of its tribe. Though the race came before those great castors now extinct, this individual was contemporary with the existing beaver, and doubtless with the aboriginal man.

It is singular that in the present controversy respecting the subsidence of a part of the eastern coast-line of the United States, I have never seen the testimony of the mastodon put in evidence. As already said, this animal has run through a long stretch of geologic time. I saw a tusk taken from the Trenton gravels of New Jersey which belong to the ice age, or glacial epoch. I have part of a tusk taken from the shore in Monmouth County, New Jersey, after a storm. This storm from the sea had washed away the drift which covered an ancient swamp, in which this relic, with other bones, had been entombed. But that swamp had been far inland, sufficient for a depression to exist far enough away from the action of the sea to enable it to support a non-marine, sub-aquatic vegetation. The subsidence had allowed the sea to come up and uncover that creature's grave. Last summer, at Long Branch, I saw a fine mastodon's tooth which was taken up by fishermen out at sea. I have also some fragments of a mastodon's tooth, besides an almost entire one of remarkable size. I consider it the sixth,[2] or last tooth developed. It was given me as coming from Long Branch, where it was obtained so long ago that its history was forgotten. I detected upon it the microscopic skeletons of marine Bryozoa, the same species that I have often found on the shells of our modern oysters. This tiny animal can only attach itself to a clean anchorage in the clear sea-water. Hence this tooth was evidently got from the sea; and, more, its old grave of mud or peat was long ago invaded by the sea and churned up, so as to float it away, leaving the tooth on the clean, sandy ocean-floor.

So it is plain that the mastodon came into what is now New Jersey ere the ice-sheet began. It receded south before it. It followed the thawing northward, and so again possessed the land. It occupied this part of the country when its shore-line was miles farther out to sea than it is to-day. Here it was confronted by the human savage, in whom it found more than its match; for, before this autochthonic Nimrod, Behemoth melted away.

  1. "On a Mastodon Americanus (Cuvier), found in a Beaver-Meadow at Freehold, New Jersey, by Samuel Lockwood." Read at the Montreal meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, August, 1882.
  2. Not counting the tusks, the elephant has only eight teeth in his mouth at any one time—two molars on each side of each jaw. The forward tooth of each pair is pushed forward until it disappears. The back one then is pushed forward, and replaces the one lost. This goes on until six molars have appeared on each side of each jaw, so that the full-aged animal has in its life-time twenty-four molars. The tusks are monstrously developed incisors. While the true elephant has normally but two tusks, the male mastodon has four, two small ones in the lower jaw, which, however, are shed before adult