Extinct Megafauna From the Ice Age: What They Tell Us Today

Dr. Robinson has been conducting research regarding paleoecology, the scientific study of interactions between organisms and their environments, since before he was a PhD Biology student at Fordham University. Much of Dr. Robinson’s research focuses on mentoring and conducting modern pollen projects—analyzing pollen samples found in geographical deposits—which reveals to scientists much about ancient ecosystems as well as our current atmospheric pollen. Currently, he is overseeing as well as participating in ongoing research regarding the discovery of Mammut Americanum, or the extinct American Mastodon, in the backyard of a Hyde Park home. 

In the summer of 1999, enormous bones belonging to a mastodon, the ice age equivalent of an elephant with longer hair, were uncovered in New York. This is not a rare case, however. According to Dr. Robinson, areas of lower New York near Orange County have a high density of buried mastodon bones, largely due to the landscape of s swamps and bogs which allows for preservation of large bones. 

Now, Dr. Robinson is working with Fordham biology students to analyze both the bones found from this megafauna of the Pleistocene era and the soil that was in direct contact with them. The researchers  hope to correlate soil findings with known macrofossil stratigraphy, the geological time scale used to interpret the layering of rocks. Through these samples, researchers can gain greater insight into megafauna of the ice age, such as information about their behavioral patterns. Analyzing their tusks in a similar manner to the way tree rings are studied can reveal stress periods these mammals went through. Dr. Robinson noted that the mastodon he found was very likely an older mastodon. He believes that this megafauna was challenged to a fight by a younger male and lost. 

In a more general sense, the discovery of certain kinds of plants and smaller animals is very telling of the kind of ecosystem that was present in New York State thousands of years ago. Head capsules (the vertex of an insect) of tiny midge flies discovered in the soil indicate that there was a warmer summer climate during the time of the mastodon. Additionally, the presence of spruce needles make radioactive dating of the bones easier by placing them in a general stratigraphic time period. 

Currently, Dr. Robinson and his team are hoping to find evidence of the type of hair mastodons had, which will reveal even more about the animals and their survival habits. Since tundra plants were found in the same layer of rock and soil as the bones, there may be evidence that the fossil sank deeper into the sediment over time. If this is true, the younger rock sediments located above the fossil will need to be examined to see if any mastodon hair survived decomposition. 

Studies like Dr. Robinson’s which focus on extinct mammals not only provide scientists with a more comprehensive understanding of the climate and animals of the past, but also of the earlier humans. These humans are scientifically referred to as Paleoindians, a group which inhabited America towards the end of the Pleistocene. The act of hunting mastodon babies communally may have had cultural significance for Paleoindians. Dr. Robinson pointed out that “These folks are not that different from us, which is part of the point I’m trying to make.” 

Megafauna findings are significant in more ways than one. The conclusions made not only reveal information about the animals themselves, but also about the ecosystem back then and even the history of early humans. Dr. Robinson’s team continues to draw scientific conclusions based on these discoveries and  hopes to learn even more about the ice age and its inhabitants.

By: Catherine Capretta, FCLC ‘23

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