University of Michigan mastodons take up positions in new space

By Meredith Bruckner - Community News Producer

The mastodon couple in the East Atrium in U-M's new Biological Sciences Building on Aug. 24, 2018 (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)

ANN ARBOR - You walk in and there they are, larger than life and ready to greet new visitors and staff to the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History's new space: a bright, five-story atrium in the brand-new Biological Sciences Building.

The famous mastodon couple (the only known display in the world of a male and female together) are nearly assembled in their new home.

"At first glance, they may look like they’re the same animals, they’re almost in the same position," said professor of paleontology Dan Fisher. "Actually a lot has changed. For one thing, the male mastodon is now shown not just on a wooden piece of dance floor, shall we say, but he’s here at the end of a trackway. A cast of an actual series of mastodon footprints that we excavated at a site near Saline."

The mastadon trackway was recreated using a fiberglass field mold on location in Saline, Mich. (Photo: Meredith Bruckner)


 

The female underwent even more significant changes. She had been on display at the original Museum of Natural History in the Ruthven Building since the late 1940s in a static pose.

Below is a time-lapse of her disassembly.

"We took this opportunity to redo her sternum area, re-pose her limbs in what would be a more biomechanically accurate position," explained Fisher.

Besides remodeling the female, Fisher's team took the opportunity to study her bones during the move, and made an extraordinary discovery.

"We have a process that’s referred to as photogrammetry, which allows us to make 3-D models of her actual bones compiling many different photographs into a computer," he said. "We realized that there was at least some evidence that she had been butchered by humans shortly after her death."

The male mastodon on display is a fiberglass cast of his bones. The female, however, is mostly bones with exception of her tusks which Fisher says are "too heavy and brittle and delicate to put on display."

"Both of them represent a lot of work that’s gone into fine tuning them for this installation and they both look much more alive and ready to greet visitors than they were before," said Fisher.

Photo: Meredith Bruckner

The museum is not yet open to the public. Its completion and grand opening is expected in April 2019.

Background

Below are some fun facts found on the Museum of Natural History's website:

The Owosso Mastodon (female)

  • Was found on a farm in Owosso, Michigan, in the early 1940s.
  • She lived about 11,000 years ago.
  • She was put on display in 1947 -- 70 years ago!
  • She is among the most complete mastodon skeletons ever discovered in Michigan.
  • The Owosso mastodon has welcomed more than four million guests since 1947!

The Buesching Mastodon (male)

  • Was found near Ft. Wayne, Indiana in 1998 on land owned by the Buesching family.
  • He was around 34 years old when he died and weighed approximately 6 tons.
  • He lived about 13,000 years ago.
  • Most of the skeleton is painted casts made from the actual bones. Some are 3D printed models. His bones were returned to Indiana.

For more information, visit lsa.umich.edu/ummnh.

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