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Chemical analysis sheds light on mastodon migration

A study from the University of Michigan has utilized new technology to help determine the migration patterns of mastodons. By analyzing isotopes from a mastodon’s tusk, the researchers determined that he died in northeast Indiana, nearly 100 north miles from his cold season home territory. 

Study first author and paleoecologist at the University of Cincinnati, Joshua Miller, explained why this study is special. “The result that is unique to this study is that for the first time, we’ve been able to document the annual overland migration of an individual from an extinct species.” 

To explore the migration patterns of the mastodon, they used new isotope technology and a new model developed by Miller and colleagues, to analyze the growth rings found in the mastodon’s tusk. They were able to extrapolate where the animal was during adolescence and the last few years of his adult life before his death at 34 years old. 

“You’ve got a whole life spread out before you in that tusk,” said study co-lead author Daniel Fisher.”The growth and development of the animal, as well as its history of changing land use and changing behavior – all of that history is captured and recorded in the structure and composition of the tusk.”  

So, about 13,200 years after his death, the Buesching mastodon still had a story to tell. The researchers believe he stayed close to the matriarchal herd in central Indiana until he became an adolescent. 

Once on his own, he traveled more, covering around 20 miles per month. The mastodon also seemed to move with the seasons, including his summer range in what is now northeastern Indiana. Here, they believe he sought mates. 

“Every time you get to the warm season, the Buesching mastodon was going to the same place – bam, bam, bam – repeatedly. The clarity of that signal was unexpected and really exciting,” explained Miller. 

The researchers aim to get their hands on more mastodons in the hopes of learning more about these ancient giants.  

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

By Erin Moody , Staff Writer

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