The mastodon specimen

Missouri Leviathan: the making of an American mastodon

Professor Adrian Lister, Museum expert on extinct megafauna, tells the hidden history behind the American mastodon on display in Hintze Hall.

When Albert Koch uncovered a graveyard of fossilised mastodons in 1840, he believed he had discovered nothing less than a mythical sea monster.

He created a large and monstrous beast from the bones of the extinct mammals, and his bizarre creation went on to astonish audiences around the world, from Mississippi to London.

Adrian Lister explains how this specimen went from touring spectacle to Museum exhibit.

What is a mastodon?

The American mastodon was a large land mammal that roamed North America throughout the Ice Age until as recently as 13,000 years ago.

Mastodons lived in pine forests and boggy areas covered by larch and spruce, feeding on twigs, leaves and water plants. 

Adapted for life at the water's edge, they had broad feet and stubby, wide-splayed toe bones. This allowed them to walk on the soft, waterlogged ground beside ponds and lakes.

We now know a lot about how these animals lived and died - but it took years for the nineteenth-century scientific community to establish the facts of mastodon anatomy.

Finding the leviathan

In the early nineteenth century, 'fossil showman' Albert Koch made a career out of exhibiting curiosities of the natural world.

In 1840, when a farmer in Missouri, USA, found a number of large fossil bones on his property, Koch was quick to secure the rights to excavate.

A drawing of Koch's creation

The skeleton Koch assembled was about 4.5m high and 9m long. The large curved tusks were mounted sideways from the head.

 

Uncovering a huge number of mastodon bones, Koch assembled a skeleton that was twice the size of a typical mastodon (which was in fact close in size to an Asian elephant).

He exaggerated the animal's size in every direction - adding several vertebrae and ribs, placing wood between vertebrae and installing the tusks so they emerged sideways.

'At the time some scientists in Europe had already encountered related kinds of animals and had drawn them with some accuracy, but Koch either didn't know about it or he didn't care,' says Adrian.

'His goal was to impress people.

'He called it the Missouri Leviathan - referring to the biblical sea monster - and had some pretty interesting theories about the way it life. Koch believed it was an underwater creature that used those big tusks as hooks to hang onto underwater branches.'

Koch's show was a great success. He toured it all over North America and even crossed the Atlantic to Europe, which was a very costly undertaking at the time.

'Although it's easy to fall into the trap of mocking Koch for his invention, the truth is nobody really knew how this animal lived. Back then it was common for people to try to accommodate stories from the Bible,' Adrian says.

An investment of some scale

The final stop of Koch's tour was London, where the mastodon was displayed in an exhibition hall in Piccadilly. Among the visitors was the Richard Owen, then-Superintendent of Natural History at the British Museum, who purchased Koch's mastodon fossils for the Museum in 1844.

The price was set at the huge sum of $2,000, with an additional $1,000 annually for life. It turned out to be an expensive purchase, as Koch lived for a further 22 years, costing Owen around $24,000.

The American mastodon in the Museum's Geological Gallery c.1919

The American mastodon in the Museum's geology gallery, around 1919

 

Shrinking the beast

Owen rearticulated the skeleton, effectively dismantling Koch's creation and displaying the animal in its atomically accurate pose.

'I wouldn't say it was a stroke of genius on Owen's part to take it apart and put it together again, but he did it remarkably accurately - even by today's standards,' says Adrian.

'He completely dismantled Koch's confection and the skeleton that is now in Hintze Hall is pretty much exactly as Owen made it. It was the first accurate mount of a mastodon, anywhere, ever.'

The specimen in its new position in Hintze Hall

The specimen in its new position in Hintze Hall

 

Is a mastodon like a mammoth?

Often confused with mammoths, mastodons are another, more distant, relative of living elephants. All three belong to the same group called proboscideans, but they evolved at different times and in different ways.

'Mastodons and mammoths do have some similar physical features - they're both large mammals with a trunk, tusks and stocky legs and both have hairy coats,' Adrian says.

'The key difference is that the mammoth has very high shoulders, a sloping back and twisted tusks, where mastodon tusks are shorter and gently curved,' Adrian explains. 'They also lived in different climates.'

And although it is a common mistake to make, elephants aren't direct descendants of mammoths or mastodons, though they share a common ancestor.

Weighty lessons from the past  

The cause of the mastodon's extinction has long been debated.

Adrian says, 'We know that around 13,000 years ago the global climate cooled, and in the area where the mastodons were living, they would have found a reduction in the abundance of the trees and water plants that they ate.

'We also know that this is the point at which modern people first spread into North America, and there is evidence that they hunted these large animals.

'So, probably, extinction is a result of natural climate change, reduction in their food supply and hunting.

'This story really has a lot of resonance for us today because the closest living relatives of the mastodons are, of course, our elephants. The pressures that they are faced with are very similar. So that is really a lesson from the past to us at the present day.'

Visit the mastodon

See the American mastodon in our newly-redeveloped Hintze Hall.

See the blue whale

Visit the Museum to walk beneath the largest animal ever to have lived.