Archive for Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Kayakers find pieces of mastodon skull on float trip

August 30, 2006

Four kayakers put in at Clinton Lake two weeks ago for a 25-mile trip down the Wakarusa River.

It was one of many river trips Garry Bichelmeyer and his brother, Mark Bichelmeyer, had made.

The trip turned uncommon in that, by day's end, their kayaks were loaded with the upper jaw bone with four intact molars, as well as pieces of the skull of an American mastodon.

From the river, they telephoned Larry Martin, professor of paleontology at Kansas University, and the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center.

Tuesday morning, the brothers showed the fossilized bones to Martin and his staff.

"It's the best I've seen in Kansas," said Martin, who has been on the KU faculty since 1972.

Martin estimated the bones at from 10,000 to 20,000 years old, but aid a carbon dating would give a better indication.

"It looks to me like it's nearly a complete skull," Martin said. "It's in a lot of pieces but I think it would go together to make more of the skull. That's kind of unusual, for instance, the museum doesn't have a mastodon skull, we just have parts, so it's unusual in its completeness."

Martin said he'd like to learn about that particular mastodon's environment.

"We might try to extract pollen from the inside of the skull and use that to figure out what the kinds of plants were there," Martin said.

And, it would be a good idea to do research at the site.

"It's an important site that needs to be checked out," Martin said. "I think we'd be lucky if there were anything else there, but I think there's a chance, it's certainly worth a check."

Garry said that later this week he and his brother would revisit the site with anthropologists from KU.

"If we can find it again," Garry said, smiling. He noted he had a general idea of where the fossils were found. "I think we can find it. One of the anthropologists has a GPS system so he can mark the site."

Kenny Bader, a graduate student in vertebrate paleontology, plans to go along.

"That's actually the first mastodon skull I had seen,"

Bader said. "Usually in Kansas, people pull out mammoths, so it's definitely something unique."

Apparently, the mastodon skull was the talk of the day in Dyche Hall, which houses KU's Museum of Natural History.

"We don't often get exciting finds brought in," Bader said. "Occasionally, people will bring in a few small bones off the river, but we almost never have something that big coming in."

After meeting with Martin, Garry said he and Mark were exhilarated to know what they had found was the skull of a 6,000-pound mastodon that roamed the earth thousands of years ago.

"I guess the thing is kind of a real rare piece because they haven't got anything that complete," Garry said. "I've gotten together with some of the students, and we may have the team work with us on rebuilding it."

'We know bones'

With the Bichelmeyer brothers on the Aug. 16 kayak trip were their cousin, Mike Billups, Shawnee, and Garry's 15-year-old grandson, Kyler Mogusar, Rapid River, Mich.

The men recalled the fossil find.

"I saw something sticking out of the water, it looked like a stump," Garry said.

But, he added, when he kept eyeing the object, he realized it wasn't a tree stump, but a large bone. Garry, 58, and Mark, 48, are both meat cutters.

"We know bones," Garry said.

Garry pointed it out to Mark, who was in another kayak behind him. All four stopped to take a look.

"The water was pretty low, that's probably why we found it," said Mark, who lives in De Soto. "We pulled it over and sure enough, it was a bone. I started trying to dig it out of the water."

The men soon realized they were looking at the top side of an upper jaw of what was likely a prehistoric animal. It certainly wasn't a horse or a cow. Each half of the upper jaw was about the length of a man's arm.

"Garry kept saying, 'If there are teeth in there, that's really something,'" Mark said.

The bone was partially buried in mud.

"It was pretty heavy," Mark said. "I finally pulled it up and I saw those big teeth. We got all excited and everything -- it was a good time."

The teeth were huge. Bichelmeyer said each of the four teeth was twice the size of one of his fists.

After they removed the upper jaw and palate -- in once piece -- they continued the impromptu dig, which took place in muddy water that was two feet deep.

"And then there were more pieces," Mark said. "I kept going through the water and pulling out all the other pieces."

Even then, in the midst of a river, the men realized that if the bones could be put together, they'd have the entire top of the head of a prehistoric animal.

It took about an hour to dig up the bones, load them in their kayaks and head on along the river. They arrived at their destination around 8 p.m., tired but exhilarated about their discovery.

A couple of days later, after the bones had been set out to dry, the men realized the teeth were in good condition.

"The enamel on the teeth is shiny," Garry said.

Garry and Mark said they don't know what they'll do with their find. They know if they sell it, the four will split the proceeds.

Chancellor's find

During their first telephone conversation, Garry, who lives in Tonganoxie, told Martin the pieces of the skull were filled with large air cavities.

Martin said that's indicative of mammoths and mastodons, or elephant skulls in general. It's thought the creatures last roamed Kansas about 10,000 years ago.

"The brain is big, but about the size of a soccer ball," Martin said, noting the skull is filled with air pockets.

That's part of the reason why the heads tend to be found with no trace of the rest of their bodies.

"The animal dies, the flesh rots off, the skull dries out," Martin said. "The skull will get washed into a river and it will float, it gets away from the rest of the skeleton."

And generally, he said, as the skull floats around the teeth drop out.

"The hardest and most stable part of the animal is the palate and the upper jaw," Martin said. "Usually you get just the teeth, sometimes you find the palate together."

And, he said, it's not unheard of to find fossils in the Wakarusa River. An early discovery took place in the late 1800s, Martin said.

"One of the very first fossils that we ever found was an elephant bone out of the Wakarusa River," Martin said. "Francis Huntington Snow, KU's fifth chancellor, was out fishing on the Wakarusa River. He was standing on a rock."

But, Snow, who came to KU in 1866 as a professor of mathematics and natural science, soon observed it wasn't a rock on which he was standing -- but the lower jaw of a mastodon.

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