Museum on the Move: Tracking the Mastodons

Museum on the Move: Tracking the Mastodons


I’ve asked myself from time to time why
people are so engaged with these animals. I know why I am as a paleontologist,
but I think even people who are not paleontologists realize that humans
have had a connection to animals like this for a long, long time. These animals
were probably crucial to the survival, to the subsistence of early humans in North
America. I think people really love them because they closely resemble, you know, modern elephants. And especially because, you know, elephants today are so endangered and, you know, there’s a lot of work to conserve them — being able to look back in time and see their relatives, it just really opens your eyes to how
important it is that we kind of conserve the world that we have around us and
what we need to do for the future of our planet. One of the special things about
this display is that this is the only place in the world where you can go and
see a mastodon associated directly with a mastodon trackway. We wanted to
juxtapose the mounted skeleton with a cast of a set of mastodon footprints
that we excavated not far from Ann Arbor, just down near Saline, at the Brennan
Mastodon site. So this is a really lifelike, careful juxtaposition of the
animal and a trackway that it could have made. There is a real tendency I
think to think of museums as a place where everything has a neat label and is
perfectly understood, put away in a drawer almost for storage and
safekeeping. But actually many of the most exciting paleontological
discoveries come from specimens that were already collected many decades ago,
that were just sitting in museum drawers waiting for someone to either have that
technological advance or that moment of inspiration to put a couple of pieces together
and come up with a new idea about the history of
life on Earth. One of the things that we wanted to improve
about this mount is to give Owosso a new sternum.
At the time the specimen was originally mounted, they didn’t really know what that part of
a mastodon looked like, specimens hadn’t been found.
Now we do know and so we were able to create through 3D printing a new
sternum for this animal and revise the sort of front portion of her
ribcage and chest. UMORF is a versatile resource that
allows us to gather and collect and share three dimensional models of fossil
specimens. So the way this works is we acquire these models through a process
known as photogrammetry. You take a lot of pictures of it from all different
angles, you plug them into a program called Reality Capture. That program
connects all the photos and kind of finds the overlap so you can create a 3D
model. If we have these virtual models, if we’re missing
one bone from say the right hand side that creature,
we can mirror the left hand bone if we have that in our collections
and create a replica of that missing part, thus
allowing both students and researchers to understand that creature as it would
have appeared intact. These models are freely available to paleontological
colleagues and indeed anyone out there in the wider public if they want to
access or examine these materials. The future of digital paleontology is not
restricted to the kinds of models of the outsides of fossils that we make and
display on UMORF, there are also a variety of tools we can use to examine
or dissect the fossils themselves to look inside of those specimens. We’re
beginning to do whole tusk CT scanning on the tusks of mammoths and mastodons.
We can see the nature of the ecosystem that the animal was living in, the sorts
of stresses the animal was facing. And it’s evidence like this that is in fact
helping us to understand now how important human hunting was in causing
the extinction of these animals. Now is a really exciting time to be a
paleontologist. We’re looking at old specimens in new ways, it’s providing us
with interesting insights that we wouldn’t have had before this technology
was available. And that’s just the field as a whole. Here at Michigan it’s an
exciting time simply because we’re in this exciting new facility. There is this
integration of research that usually goes on behind the scenes with the
public face of paleontology through exhibits in the
Museum of Natural History. We’re actually making that archive, that
story, that family album if you will of life’s own history available to the
wider public.

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