Students make toothy find
MASTODON TOOTH -- Pat Ross, left, science professor from Southwestern College, holds fossilized teeth of a prehistoric mastodon, Tuesday afternoon on E. Radio Lane, near the spot where the fossil was found by Andy Robins, right, and Ventzen Marr, second from right. Looking on is Adam Maloney, the freshmen boys’ teacher. (Donita Clausen/Traveler)
By Courier Staff
Arkansas City freshmen students Ventzen Marr and Andy Robins knew they found something unusual Sunday as they walked along the edge of North Pond near the dead end of E. Radio Lane.
They spotted what looked like a large rock formed like several sharp teeth.
They took their larger-than-a-handful find to the high school the next day and showed it to their teachers, Adam Maloney and Cindy Meeks.
“Cindy and I both thought right away it looked like teeth, so we took it to the biology department, and the teachers there confirmed it was definitely teeth, but they weren’t sure what kind,” Maloney said.
So they showed it a Southwestern College professor, who concluded the find was the teeth of a mastodon, a huge extinct mammal that was about the size of a modern-day elephant. Mastodons roamed Kansas between 10,000 and 70,000 years ago.
Pat Ross, who heads the division of science and math at Southwestern, said mastodons can be distinguished from mammoths, another extinct mammal, by what they ate.
The mammoth ate grass, but the mastodon chewed on shrubs and wood bark. “A mastodon tooth is very distinct and different from a mammoth tooth, which has a flat surface for grinding up grasses,” Ross said.
The professor met the boys and Maloney Tuesday afternoon near the pond on E. Radio Lane. He said he was pleased that the pair had not cleaned up the fossilized teeth they had found. Embedded in the teeth were chunks of bone that probably were from the same animal. One bone looked like it might have been from the skull.
The boys had little to say about how they found the teeth.
“We were just walking by, and it was was just setting there,” Marr said.
Robins added that he and his classmate were walking along the perimeter of the pond when they spotted the teeth. But they had trouble showing Ross the exact spot where they found it. Ross dug earth samples from several spots along the pond bank.
“We’re finding it tough to pinpoint the spot,” Ross said. “These guys found it along the shore line with their eagle eyes, but how did it get there?”
Ross speculated that the recent rain shook the fossilized teeth loose from the bank.
“One hundred million years ago Kansas was an ocean,” he said “The main fossils we find in Cowley County are invertebrates, soft bodied creatures.”
Finding remans of mammoths and mastodons is less common, he added.
“I think the chances of finding more of this specimen here are high,” he said. “But the chances of finding the whole skeleton (are) remote.”
A volunteer coordinator of vertebrate paleontology at the KU Natural History Museum said Wednesday mastodon finds are rarer than finds of mammoth remains.
“Kansas was an open grassy area toward the end of the Pleistocene, or Ice Age,” said Kenny Bader, the volunteer coordinator. “About 90 percent of the elephants here were probably mammoths, and the others were mastodons. Mastodons were browsers that lived in forests and ate tree bark.”
Maloney said during the hike to the pond that he was pleased his students were getting a hands-on educational experience.
“A teaching opportunity like this doesn’t come along every day,” he said. “It’s something else for these kids to see the practical side to education instead of reading a textbook. This is what science is all about.”
The boys said they would return to the area to try to find more of the prehistoric animal.
Their find is not the first of its kind in Arkansas City. On July 12, 1929, The Traveler reported that a “huge prehistoric being” was unearthed on a farm south of Arkansas City. Professor H.T. Martin of the University of Kansas and three students examined the dig, and discovered it to be an elephant.
“The discovery tempts the imagination to go back to a day when Arkansas City was in a tropical or semi-tropical jungle and great tusked brutes charged and trumpeted through the underbrush and the heavy prairie grasses,” the article states.