What’s that in the river?

The world is full of beautiful and strange things. Indonesian insects with eyes on stalks, African mole rats, Amazonian parrots and Chinese snakehead fish.

We can get so caught up in the exotic world of other places that we forget the strange and fascinating right under our own noses.

As fortune has it Gary Bichelmeyer and three friends had their eyes open as they kayaked the Wakarusa River last weekend.

Edit: Not the Kaw, I’m stupid

i-1e4693787e555bd779d676b4bcb5c164-200608241259.jpgThe Lawrence Journal-World tells how

the Aug. 16 trip turned uncommon in that, by day?s end, their kayaks were loaded with the upper jawbone and four intact molars of an American mastodon, as well as pieces of the skull.

From the river they telephoned Larry Martin, professor of paleontology at Kansas University and 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.

There was a time when mastodons with tusks 5 feet across roamed the earth. Whether because of human hunting, disease, climate change, or some combination of factors, they all died. Some died in rivers. They rotted, were buried in oxygen-poor mud, and remained undisturbed.

This one’s skull probably floated away from the body, then sank. The drought I mentioned earlier means lower river levels, and four friends on a river spotted something odd. They came home with a piece of our shared history in the back of their kayak. They all have stories to tell their friends, and these bones will tell scientists stories all of their own.

Pollen trapped in the skull may tell researchers what plants grew when the mastodon died, and what it may have eaten. The ratios of carbon atoms in the bone will tell us when it died. Finding the rest of the body will tell us how it lived.

A mouth that’s been full of mud for 10,000 years will start telling stories. And all because a few people had their eyes open to the wonders of the world around us.


  1. #1 Dave
    August 25, 2006

    Can these guys be convinced to donate the skull to the KU Museum (which apparently does not have a mastodon skull)? According to an article in the KC Star, they plan to have some KU grad students help them put it back together and then display it in a barbeque restaurant in Tonganoxie… I think, based on all the help they have received (and are still planning to receive, apparently) from the KU folks, the least they can do is donate it to the museum rather than have it collect grease in a restaurant!

  2. #2 Mark
    August 26, 2006

    The river was the Wakarusa below Clinton Dam.

  3. #3 Sean
    August 26, 2006

    In a restaurant and not a proper museum?

    Goddamned people…

  4. #4 Daprez
    August 28, 2006

    KU has a few mastodon skulls but it is a shame that it won’t get one more.
    Josh, How could you miss that the find was from the Wakarusa, not the Kaw? You should get out on it sometime. It’s an amazing river full of gar and alligator turtles.

  5. #5 Josh
    August 29, 2006

    I’m stupid. I was remembering a friend who found a Pleistocene bison skull in the Kaw and just skimmed right past the Wakarusa part of the story.

  6. #6 Daprez
    August 30, 2006

    Still got out on the Wakie sometime soon. As the season’s change you’ll be amazed at the transformation in wildlife in its ecosystem. In the summertime its a jungle with all the overgrowth in vegetation.

  7. #7 kenny b
    October 28, 2007

    i found a bone on the kaw and want to knopw what it is can you help

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