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A New Resource for Researching America's Elephants

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Lauren Parry
Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument, Nevada

black and white photo of a collection of fossils
Figure 1.  A historic photograph from 1908 of woolly mamoth (Mammuthus primigenius) bones, including (from top to bottom) the skull, mandible, tusk, vertebrae, scapula, and ribs.

These bones were found by miners during the Klondike Gold Rush from what is now Yukon-Charley Rivers National Preserve in Alaska. They were later purchased by the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago. Photo courtesy NPS; from Mead et al. (2020).

National Park Service (NPS) units serve as natural laboratories, museum collections, and archives for paleontology researchers across the globe. Where does a paleontology research project even start? A huge part of the scientific process is compiling what we already know, which is a lot more challenging and time-consuming than one would think. It remains a noble cause, as harnessing the power of information becomes a lot more accessible when it’s all in one place. This was the goal of a recent effort of paleontologists Jim Mead, Justin Tweet, Vince Santucci, Jeffrey Rasic, and Sharon Holte in publishing “Proboscideans from US National Park Service Lands” in a 2020 issue of the journal Eastern Paleontologist.

This new paper, available at: https://www.eaglehill.us/epalonline/access-pages/006-Mead-accesspage.shtml, compiles the current and previously unpublished records of proboscideans from 63 National Park Service Units servicewide to formally recognize this collection of resources and support researchers. Locating and synthesizing information about America’s elephants can feel much like chasing around butterflies with a very small net. Paleontologists and other naturalists have been collecting and describing North American proboscideans long before NPS units were established. Consequently, information was spread across scientific papers, conference presentations, unpublished musings, well-hidden fossil localities, museum collections, handwritten field notes, and documents stored away in boxes. The result is a comprehensive finder’s guide to the diverse and fascinating fossil record of proboscideans throughout the NPS.

Proboscideans once thrived in the diverse habitats of North America during the Miocene, Pliocene, and Pleistocene epochs. There are three main lineages of American proboscideans: Gomphotheriidae (Gomphotheres), Mammutidae (Mastodonts), and Elephantidae (Mammoths). These three distinct families have noticeable differences in their tooth structure, skeletal morphologies, and tusk shape and length. These charismatic animals left behind a fossil record of footprints, dung, bones, tusks, and teeth and live on to tell their stories through research, preservation, and public engagement. The paper authors encourage researchers to contact the manager of the park unit whose fossils are of interest, although the excavated specimens may be cataloged off-site. There is boundless potential for proboscidean research opportunities on NPS-administered lands. Generation after generation, researchers, students, NPS staff, and citizen scientists add to what we know about the lumbering giants of our not-so-distant past—we can’t wait to see what we learn next.

fossil jaw bone with teeth
Figure 2. Teeth of the large mammutid Zygolophodon from John Day Fossil Beds National Monument and National Natural Landmark in Oregon. Zygolophodon marks the beginning of the proboscidean fossil record in North America, approximately 16 million years ago. The scale bar is 15 cm long (checkerboard portion is 10 cm).

Photo courtesy NPS and Nicholas A. Famoso; from Mead et al. (2020).

fossils on the ground
Figure 3. Pleistocene juvenile Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) tusk (left) and ulna (right) excavated by the San Bernardino County Museum from Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument (TUSK) in Nevada.  Mammoths are the most identified vertebrate fossil from TUSK. The scale bar is 10 cm long.

Photo credit San Bernardino County Museum; from TUSK archives.

photo illustration of a person standing next to a mammoth on white gypsum sand dunes
Figure 4. Extensive Pleistocene proboscidean trackways are preserved within the gypsum sand and playa lake deposits at White Sands National Monument (WHSA) in New Mexico.  Recently published Pleistocene human footprints cross-cut by mammoth tracks from WHSA tell the story of a person carrying a small child.  In this photo-illustration, a rendering of a mammoth towers over a person standing in the background, observing the ichnofossils.

Photo courtesy NPS; from Mead et al. (2020).

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Last updated: March 15, 2021