Laelaps

Reincarnating the Cohoes Mastodon

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The “reincarnated” Cohoes Mastodon. You can see him today at the Cohoes Public Library. (From Natural History)

For decades we have been hearing of the designs of some ambitious scientists to bring the woolly mammoth back to life. I first heard of such plans in the 1980′s when I was a young child but they continue to pop up every now and again. Perhaps we could make a mammoth-like creature through the selective breeding of living elephants or a little developmental engineering, but I doubt that a true Mammuthus primigenius will ever exist again. They are long gone.

It may be that what makes the extinction of the woolly mammoth so frustrating is that is happened so recently; close enough to the present that a number of their bodies have been found intact in the frozen soil of Alaska and Siberia. They are both familiar and yet more impressive than any species of living elephant, and their “lesser” cousin the mastodon shares some of their notoriety.*

*[I say "lesser" only because the popularity of the woolly mammoth is so overwhelming that the skeletons of mastodons are often confused with those of mammoths by the public. In a way I think of them as the Neanderthal of the proboscideans; noteworthy but brushed off to the side.]

On May 11, 1922 the New York Museum promised to reincarnate a mastodon. Known as the Cohoes Mastodon this specimen was found in 1866 near Cohoes Falls, New York. As the personal invitation from the mastodon included in the magazine Natural History stated the specimen had “stood in his bones before the public for fifty years” but “has now resumed his natural aspect as he appeared at the time of his lamented death some thousands of years ago during the waning stages of the great Ice Age.”

The museum could not boast a living mastodon, of course, but Noah Clarke, Charles Heindrich, and John Clarke produced a life-sized replica of the mastodon as it would have appeared in life. This was no papier-mache mock up but an exquisitely detailed reconstruction. As the notice in Natural History read;

It is probably difficult for any one who is not a specialist in anatomy to realize how accurately and certainly one can reconstruct the muscles and outward proportions of an extinct animal from careful study of the bones in comparison with those of its living relatives. Every little peculiarity in each bone, every process or scar has its definite purpose for the attachment of certain muscles, and by its prominence, position, etc., indicates the exact position, the form, and the magnitude of the muscle that is attached to it. By comparison of the skeleton with the skeleton and the muscles and proportions of the modern elephants, one can deduce with very little margin of error the position and proportions of each muscle in the mastodon, and build up its bodily form, as far as the skin, with a reasonable certainty that it is approximately correct.

The skeleton of the Cohoes Mastodon is on display at the New York State Museum, but to see the furry reconstruction you have to go to the Cohoes Public Library. In fact, the library just celebrated its esteemed resident with a “March of the Mastodon” contest. I do not have plans to travel to Cohoes or Albany anytime soon, but if I am passing through I may just have to stop to see how the two Cohoes mastodons are holding up.

Comments

  1. #1 Raymond Minton
    March 30, 2009

    Does enough DNA evidence exist to tell how close the mastodon is to modern elephants genetically? I know the wooly mammoth’s closest genetic relative is the asiastic elephant, and mastodons are more distant relatives.

  2. #2 Chris
    March 31, 2009

    I happen to be a grad student at the New York State Museum, and was lucky enough to witness the assembly of the skeleton in it’s new display location. The skeleton is quite impressive, although apparently it was a relatively small male with stunted growth due to some dental problems.
    You can see a timelapse video of the assembly process on the museum website.
    http://www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibits/longterm/mastodon/
    We also have several of the “furry” replicas on display in a diorama, although I’m not sure of their relation to the one in the Cohoes library.
    The metal armature that holds the skeleton together is a work of art itself, a hand made brass and iron clutch mount, which means no holes in the bone.
    for a description of it’s discovery, go here:
    http://www.archive.org/stream/historycohoes00mastrich/historycohoes00mastrich_djvu.txt and scroll down to page 185.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    March 31, 2009

    I cannot tell you how many hours I’ve spent with this beast and related material. This mastodont is the reason I’m in the sciences today. No kidding.

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