19 August 2015

Fossil Vertebrate of the Month: Mammuthus columbi

The Latah Mammoth looming above other Pleistocene megafauna
The Field Museum
There are many magnificent fossils from the Northwest, from the Cambrian wonders of the Burgess Shale to the Cenozoic animals and plants of the John Day Basin.  Many of these specimens are visually spectacular, quite a few have figured into major debates in paleontology, and all have a fascinating story to tell, but it is unlikely that any have as large an audience as a mammoth uncovered over a century ago outside of Spokane.  The specimen in question was found in a bog on the property of the Coplen Family along Latah Creek in 1876.  Following its excavation, the fossil began an odyssey that has been eloquently described by writer Jack Nisbet.  Along the way, it crossed paths with no less a figure than Thomas Condon, the father of paleontology and geology in the Northwest, and was identified first, incorrectly, as a woolly mammoth and later as a Columbian mammoth, Mammuthus columbi.  In the end, the Latah Mammoth landed in Chicago, where it was owned by the Chicago Academy of Sciences, displayed at the World's Columbian Exhibition, and was finally reposited in the Field Museum.  It remains on display there today, one of the more impressive specimens in one of the world's more impressive fossil collections.  Last year alone, more than a million visitors had an opportunity to view this former resident of the Palouse, making it probably the most visited fossil ever uncovered in the Northwest.  While they were far from the first proboscideans in North America, mammoths were tremendously successful after migrating from Asia at the beginning of the Irvingtonian Land Mammal Age.  Unlike woolly mammoths, which had a holarctic distribution, Columbian mammoths were endemic to North America, and their phenomenal success is attested to by a rich fossil record from the edge of the continental ice sheets to Central America.  While the Latah Mammoth is the most familiar mammoth to have been uncovered from the Northwest, several other fossils of note have been uncovered here that have received varying degrees of scientific and popular attention.  The only specimen to achieve anything near the fame of the Latah Mammoth is the Seattle Mammoth excavated early last year.  The specimen is just a tusk, considerably less impressive on the surface than the Latah skeleton.  However, rather than having been found along a remote creek in eastern Washington, it was uncovered while constructing a new office building in the South Lake Union "neighborhood" of Seattle.  The finding of the remains of so iconic an animal in the midst of one of the fastest-growing parts of a major city and a very successful educational campaign by the Burke Museum have done much to generate enthusiasm for and appreciation of paleontology among Seattleites.  More recently, mammoths were among the animals analyzed as part of an study establishing a chronology of megafauna in the Willamette Valley following the devastation of the Missoula Floods, allowing a more rigorous analysis of the impacts of human activity and climate change than had previously been possible in the region.  Mammoths have long been among the more charismatic of extinct animals, and their popularity was recognized in Olympia in 1998 when a 2nd grade class from Cheney petitioned the state legislature to name Mammuthus columbi the Washington State Fossil, making it an official symbol of the Evergreen State along with apples, hemlocks, and rhododendrons (and, for that matter, petrified wood).