My Backyard is a Mastodon Smorgasbord

It’s hard to imagine elephant-like animals as a common component of Georgia’s wildlife, but during glacial cycles of the Pleistocene, the region of what’s now Georgia and other southeastern states provided habitat for two species, and during interglacial stages was home to three.  About two million years ago mammoths crossed the Bering land bridge and spread across the North American continent, replacing 4-tusked stegomastodons from their niche here, though the latter continued to thrive in South America.  Mammoths were grazers, mostly subsisting on grass, and they preferred open habitats of prairie, meadow, and lightly wooded savannah.  The species of mammoth prevalent in Georgia then is known as the Columbian mammoth–a different species than the more famous but less widespread woolly mammoth.

Mastodons, close relatives of stegomastodons, had a different history.  They too originally evolved in Africa and spread across the upper hemisphere of the world, but they’re much older as a species, having evolved during the Miocene.  They became extinct in Africa, Asia, and Europe before the Pleistocene, but continued to successfully survive in North America until men invaded the continent and probably hunted them into extinction with the rest of the megafauna between 15,000  and 12,000 years ago.

Mastodons occupied a different habitat and ecological niche than mammoths, perhaps explaining why both species co-existed for two million years.  Mastodons inhabited wooded river bottomlands and swamps where they found lots of succulent plants to browse upon.  In fact we know exactly the types of plants they ate because scientists discovered loads (more than 27 square meters) of 14,500 calender year old fossil mastodon dung in the Aucilla River of Florida.

Scientists analyzed the contents of this dung and discovered that mastodons ate twigs, leaves, sedges, fruits, and aquatic plants.  Their fur, a sample of which was discovered by a museum curator in Milwaukee, resembled that of beavers and otters, suggesting mastodons were a semi-aquatic animal.  A diet of plants found near water supports this hypothesis.  Interestingly, all but 3 of the at least 40 species of plants found in Aucilla River mastodon dung still occur in this region of Florida–obvious evidence against climate change models of extinction.  Osage orange, hazlenut, and an undetermined species of goard were the three that no longer occur naturally in north Florida today.

During warm interglacials of the Pleistocene, a third elephant-like species, the gompothere, expanded its range north from South America to inhabit the southeast.  They probably co-existed with mastodons on the same range because they also ate browse, though they were more of a mixed feeder, eating grass as well.  Evidentally, they couldn’t adapt to cold climate as well as mastodons and mammoths.

I toured my backyard recently and discovered an abundance of the plant species commonly found in mastodon dung.  Much to the occasional annoyance of my snake-phobic neighbors, I ban lawn mowers from my yard and allow it to grow into a jungle.  Here are some photos of plants in my backyard that would provide fodder for a mastodon, if we could retrieve one from back in time.

Pokeweed–Phytolacca americana

The young shoots are especially delicious for humans too when steamed and covered with butter.  I think they taste better than asparagus.  They soon turn bitter, so be sure to pick them young.  The roots are deadly poisonous; the berries mildly so, but not for many species of wildlife.  I’ve seen mourning doves consume them, and passenger pigeons must have spread pokeweed seeds through their dung like air force pilots dropping cluster bombs.  Pokeweed is also known as pigeon berry because passenger pigeons were so fond of them.  The massive flocks of passenger pigeons used to destroy acres of forest by overfertilizing the trees with sheets of their dung when they roosted.  Pokeweed, along with ginseng, were the first plants to pop up in these areas.   Mastodons spread pokeweed in their dung too, but probably not to the extent passenger pigeons did.

Virginia creeper

This tenacious vine is climbing my house.  It resembles poison ivy and poison oak but is not generally considered poisonous, though many people are allergic to it.  Birds spread the small fruit of this plant as well.

Grape

These are my twenty year old scuppernong vines.  They’re heavy producers of sweet grapes.  I love grape leaves stuffed with rice or mushrooms, and they add a fruity taste to beef stew–like wine but without the sweetness, acidity, or alcohol taste.  Mastodons loved them as well.

Laurel Oak

Mastodons living near what’s now the Aucilla River consumed three types of oak–laurel, live, and overcup.  They ate the twigs, leaves, and immature and mature acorns.  Oaks thrive when pruned–saplings I cut back ever year resprout eternally.  The big laurel oak in my backyard is at least 150 years old.

Persimmon

I have dozens of persimmon seedlings in my yard.  They produce lots of seeds that small animals spread in their dung.  People misunderstand this fruit.  They aren’t ripe until late November–it’s an early winter fruit, though the fruit on some individual trees ripens as early as late September.  Unripe, they dry out your mouth, but once ripe they’re sweet and taste like perfumed dates.

References:

Newsom, Lee; and Matthew Mihlbacher

“Mastodons (Mammut americanum) Diet Foraging Patterns Based on Analysis of Dung Deposits” from The First Floridians and the Last Mastodons edited by David Webb

Springer 2006

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2 Responses to “My Backyard is a Mastodon Smorgasbord”

  1. John Hughes Says:

    Have you any thoughts on the mastodon feeding on Osage Orange fruits?I’ve read and heard comments that the tree was much more prevalent in the Plestiocene because the mammoths and mastodons could digest and pass the seeds.A symbiotic relation,as it were. Thanks

    • markgelbart Says:

      Osage orange was found in fossil mastodon dung excavated from the Aucilla River in Florida.

      Osage orange was more widespread during the Pleistocene. Osage orange fossils were excavated from a site in Missouri, dating to the Pleistocene, which was outside its pre-Columbian range before Europeans began spreading the species again.

      One Indian tribe had a monopoly on the relic population of Osage orange. A relic population was all that was left, following the extinction of the mastodons. Indians prefered Osage orange for making bows, and they probably saved it from extinction.

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