The Warren mastodon gets a new set of dentures


The Warren mastodon as originally mounted in the Warren Museum of Natural History. Note the size of the tusks. From The Story of Nineteenth-Century Science.

It is rarely crowded in the "Hall of Advanced Mammals" at the American Museum of Natural History. People stroll through on their way to see the dinosaurs and may stop to admire a fossil or two like the striking mount of Amphicyon, but the mammals just cannot compete with the star power of the archosaurs. This is a shame, for not only does the hall hold a weird and wonderful array of extinct creatures, but many people do not realize they are in the midst of a fossil celebrity rivaling Barnum Brown's Tyrannosaurus.


"The true position of the tusks in the mastodon." From The Collected Papers of H.F. Osborn.

When the Warren (aka Newburgh) mastodon was discovered in 1845 it was a sensation. Except for a few toe and tail bones it was a complete specimen, a dazzling giant exhumed before the imposing North American dinosaurs like Hadrosaurus and Dryptosaurus were pulled from the New Jersey marl pits. It was made all the more impressive by the tusks mounted on the completed skeleton. The remains of the originals could not be mounted but it was reported to John Collins Warren, the man who scientifically described the skeleton, that the tusks were in excess of 11 feet long.


The Warren mastodon mounted at the AMNH at the beginning of the 20th century. From The American Museum Journal.

The reconstructed tusks were placed in something of a "tuning fork" arrangement on the skeleton, but the modern mount of the skeleton no longer sports these impressive faux-teeth. Why had they been changed? For the majority of the 19th century the skeleton was on exhibit in the Warren Museum of Natural History in Boston but in 1906 the Warren collection was purchased for the AMNH in New York. Included in the purchase was the first Basilosaurus skeleton to be mounted anywhere and, of course, the Warren mastodon.

By this time it was known that the original reconstructions of the tusks were wrong. They were almost ridiculously large and scientists at the AMNH studied the pieces of original dentine-stripped tusk to figure out how large they had truly been in life. They found that the tusks were of a more modest size, about eight and a half feet, and were arc-shaped. Although the rest of the skeleton remained virtually unchanged the tusks did everything to change the appearance of the mount, but this switch and the relative fame of the Warren mastodon goes by generally unknown to visitors of the AMNH.

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It's good they have those rooms full of dinosaurs to siphon off the crowds-- otherwise we'd never get an uninterrupted view of the REALLY interesting fossil mammals (and, at the end of the hall overlooking Central Park, pre-mammals)! (Grin!)

One of my favorite things about the Warren Mastodon is that it has vestigial tusks (plural? or is one missing? haven't been to the AMNH for some months) in its lower jaw, making it a neat intermediate (*) between the 4-tuskers and the big Columbian Mammoth behind it.


(*) Yes, of course: Mammut isn't on the line of descent leading to mammoths and modern elephants. But it represents a stage of lower-jaw-shortening their actual ancestors must have gone through.

By Allen Hazen (not verified) on 06 Mar 2009 #permalink

Allen; Right, the Warren mastodon skeleton has only one mandible tusk (you can see it if you look really hard at the last photo).

The mastodon in the first picture looks like it's wearing the handlebar mustache that was popular at the time! I guess that's one of the many examples of an incorrect display built of incomplete knowledge. I don't know why dinosaurs get all the attention, because I happen to find fossil mammals equally fascinating.

By Raymond Minton (not verified) on 07 Mar 2009 #permalink