This project has been very enlightening though I have not advanced at the pace I had originally planned. My original goal was to create a general geologic history of Orange County since the last ice age. However, this quickly changed. I realized that this original goal would take much more time to achieve then I had available to me. I decided to divide the work into much more manageable goals. My first task was to collect as much data as possible and begin to draw connections between different sources. The majority of the information that I have gathered deals with the behaviors of both mastodon and early Native Americans. I have also learned a great deal about how habitats evolve after a glacier leaves an area. This new knowledge serves as a foundation from which I can build on as I continue to research. However, as interesting as this knowledge is, I find my development as a scientist to be even more meaningful.
One of the most important things to understand is how mastodons interacted with their environment. Though they look similar to their more well known cousins, the mammoth, there are several key differences between the two creatures. One of the primary differences is in their diets. It is believed that mammoth primarily foraged on grass. This is evident by the shape of their teeth. Mammoth teeth are flat with several grooves running across the surface. These teeth as best suited for grinding up grass. In contrast, the mastodon’s teeth are best suited for breaking up tree branches and other though plants. Each tooth has three high points and many other smaller ones. Their teeth almost look as if they belonged to a carnivore. In fact, those that first discovered the beasts’ skulls were convinced that it was a giant predator. Understanding the diets of these great beasts is vitally important to understanding where they once lived. Since mastodons are the most prevalent megafauna fossil found in Orange county, it can be assumed that the region was once densely forested.
Researching the early human history of the area is very interesting. Based on evidence found around the county, humans and mastodons seemed to coexist for a time. We have found several of their finely crafted stone tools and have been able to accurately date them to around the same age as many of the mastodon remains. However, of the nearly 30 mastodon skeletons uncovered since the late 1700’s, none have shown signs of human predation. The stone tools they used leave tell tale cut marks in the bones of the creatures they butchered. However those marks are nowhere to be found on these skeletons. This is unusual. If these people lacked the ability to kill a mastodon for themselves, it seems odd that they wouldn’t try to scavenge one that had died after falling in one of the numerous bogs in the area. Many researchers feel that this is how most of the mastodon in Orange County had died. For a hunting and gathering society, a mastodon would have been able to provide a tribe with enough food for a long time. This suggests to me that we are missing some crucial piece of information about these early people.
Post- glacial environments go through a very structured evolution from the time the great mass of ice first begins to recede. One of the first environments that develop is tundra. These wide grasslands would have been ideally suited for mammoths which grazed on grasses more than anything else. This environment would have also been suitable for other creatures that thrive in open areas like buffalo. As time progresses, the tundra gives way to evergreen forests. This is the habitat that mastodon prefer. Deciduous trees follow shortly after and eventually totally replace pine and spruce. The most effective way we have to measure this progression is through pollen spore analyses. The spores are extracted from a sample of soil and then identified. These records paint a fairly clear picture of how the environment changes over time. Interestingly, the pollen data from this area shows that the final extinction of the mastodon occurred near the same time that the forests in the area began to transition from evergreen to hickory and oak. Researchers believe that mastodon feed primarily on pine and spruce and this change could have helped push them to extinction.
This project has truly been a wonderful experience. I have always enjoyed the study of paleontology and I feel that it has taught me more about how life has developed since the last ice age then I would have ever hoped to learn on my own or in a classroom. However what I find more meaningful is how much I have learned about the scientific process itself. I have known for some time that part of the scientific method involves research but I lacked any real concept of what that meant. To me, research simply meant looking a few things up before you head out into the field to conduct the bulk of your work. I now see that research has a significant role to play in this process. Research provides a foundation from which to build from. If one does not have a firm grasp of what they are studying then they will continue to run into problems as they move forward. Furthermore, I never anticipated how much a project can change. Often it seemed .like every time I went to work on it, the project evolved in some way. Eventually I needed to pick a course and follow it. Otherwise I may never have got anywhere. I truly feel that this project has helped me develop as a scientist and has given me valuable knowledge that I can share with my future students.