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Evidence for the diet and habitat of two late Pleistocene mastodons from the Midwest, USA

  • Hilary H. Birks (a1), Bas van Geel (a2), Daniel C. Fisher (a3), Eric C. Grimm (a4), Wim J. Kuijper (a5), Jan van Arkel (a2) and Guido B.A. van Reenen (a2)...


We analyzed intestinal contents of two late-glacial mastodons preserved in lake sediments in Ohio (Burning Tree mastodon) and Michigan (Heisler mastodon). A multi-proxy suite of macrofossils and microfossils provided unique insights into what these individuals had eaten just before they died and added significantly to knowledge of mastodon diets. We reconstructed the mastodons’ habitats with similar multi-proxy analyses of the embedding lake sediments. Non-pollen palynomorphs, especially spores of coprophilous fungi differentiated intestinal and environmental samples. The Burning Tree mastodon gut sample originates from the small intestine. The Heisler mastodon sample is part of the large intestine to which humans had added clastic material to anchor parts of the carcass under water to cache the meat. Both carcasses had been dismembered, suggesting that the mastodons had been hunted or scavenged, in line with other contemporaneous mastodon finds and the timing of early human incursion into the Midwest. Both mastodons lived in mixed coniferous-deciduous late-glacial forests. They browsed tree leaves and twigs, especially Picea. They also ate sedge-swamp plants and drank the lake water. Our multi-proxy estimates for a spring/summer season of death contrast with autumn estimates derived from prior tusk analyses. We document the recovered fossil remains with photographs.


Corresponding author

*Corresponding author at: Department of Biological Sciences and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, University of Bergen, Postboks 7803, N-5020 Bergen, Norway. E-mail address: (H.H. Birks).


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