ANN ARBOR, MI — The University of Michigan is something of a mecca for behemoths and mammoths.
When a 6-year-old found a mastodon tooth last fall in Rochester Hills, it was donated to the UM Museum of Paleontology. The same thing happened in 2015 when woolly mammoth bones were discovered in Chelsea. Several other discoveries were made in the Saline area in the 1980s.
If you had asked museum director Dan Fisher when he arrived in Ann Arbor four decades ago, he never would have imagined he would learn so much about behemoths. Now his knowledge is as intimate as the place where they walked and mated tens of thousands of years ago.
Fisher participated in a joint study alongside the University of Cincinnati, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and several other institutions that documented the annual migration of an individual member of the extinct species.
“I didn’t come here with experience working on behemoths,” he said. “But I went to help recover one of those behemoths and then the second one and there was a big contrast in how they were preserved and I just had to respond to that and figure out what was was responsible for it.”
The study paints a picture of the trials and tribulations of an 8-ton adult Buesching behemoth, named after northern Indiana peat growers Kent and Janne Buesching who discovered the remains in 1998. Researchers have determined that approximately 13,200 years ago, this male died at age 34 in a “bloody mating season battle with a rival,” according to a statement from UM
“Northeastern Indiana was likely a favorite summer breeding ground for this lone hiker, who made the trek every year for the last three years of his life, venturing north from his seasonal home. cold,” according to the study published June 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Read more: Woolly Mammoth Remains Important to Michigan Prehistory
The behemoth likely stayed close to home until it separated from its female-led herd as a teenager, the UM statement said. It traveled nearly 20 miles a month, the researchers said, and the lone wolf usually ended up in northeast Indiana for mating time.
The Buesching juggernaut is now in the UM Museum. Researchers were able to track the Buesching behemoth’s movements through central and southern Michigan, analyzing the isotopic material that makes up its tusks and comparing it to the landscapes where it possibly roamed, Fisher 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,” said University of Cincinnati paleoecologist Joshua Miller, first author of the study.
“Every time you came to the hot season, the Buesching juggernaut would go to the same place – bam, bam, bam – over and over,” Miller added. “The clarity of this signal was unexpected and really exciting.”
Fisher first excavated the Buesching behemoth 24 years ago, and since then he has discovered how the animal and its peers migrated and changed the landscape of the Midwest.
“You’ve got a lifetime ahead of you in this defense,” Fisher said.
One of the ways the study has modern relevance is in understanding the migration and breeding cycles of modern elephants. Because the world is more developed than it was tens of thousands of years ago, elephants don’t have the same leeway as their mastodon ancestors, Fisher said.
The second aspect that Fisher wants to explore with the new analytical techniques is how humans may have affected the migration of mastodons at the end of the Pleistocene, more than 11,700 years ago.
“There is evidence of a strong human component in the cause of the extinction of these animals,” he said, noting that the issue needs to be explored further.
Mastodons were herbivores that browsed on trees and shrubs, the UM statement said.
The study and future research will improve our understanding of our history, Fisher said.
“It ends up being important to understand these things to understand ecosystems,” he said. “How they work to understand human history and the history of changes in human behavior and sustenance and impact local landscapes.”
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