Thursday, May 31, 2012

Calling Fred Flintstone: Mastodons in Cranford!

Based on a favorable scouting report from Birding on the Net, Ivan and I struck out two Sundays ago to see who we'd find near the Deserted Village in Watchung Reservation. We'd gotten a somewhat late start after a long day in Atlantic County, so we weren't sure what, if anything we'd discover. An extensive hike brought us an immature red tailed hawk being hassled by blue jays, as well as orioles, a rose-breasted grosbeak, scarlet tanager and others, but the real find was along the park road on our way out.

Driving Glenside Avenue back to Tracy Road, I saw a temporary lawn sign with the outline of what looked like a hairy elephant. The lettering read "Mastodon. Trailside Nature and Science Center."

A nice chunk of the Cranford mastodon's jaw,
plus a tusk to the rear.
A mastodon? This was a new one on me. The county had completely revamped the museum a few years ago to feature much of the local flora and fauna, but they hadn't added any prehistoric creatures. I couldn't remember seeing any fossils in the old museum, either, so this deserved a special visit. As Ivan noted, sometimes the most hidden history is buried beneath our feet.

That was even truer than we realized. Turns out the mastodon in question was found in one of our stomping grounds, Lenape Park in Cranford. WPA workers were digging an artificial lake there in 1936 when they came upon a tusk and jaw from a young male mastodon. Geology professors from both Princeton and Rutgers came to the site to supervise the excavation of the relics, which they later theorized had been transported from elsewhere as the Wisconsin glacier receded.

While the mastodon who gave us these relics may not have been a resident of what later became New Jersey, the species wasn't a stranger to the state. An 1844 discovery in Hackettstown revealed five full skeletons, and the results of a dig in Mannington in the late 1800s yielded nearly a full mastodon skeleton, now a centerpiece of the Rutgers Geology Museum in New Brunswick. A litany of other discoveries is scattered through much of the state.

Here's the mysterious part of the Trailside exhibit: it mentions additional mastodon finds in Union and Westfield, but the accompanying website states that there's no surviving evidence or scholarly notes on artifacts or their whereabouts. Could it be that someone's hiding a mastodon head in their attic? Could it be a stepping stone in a garden, the way another skull was used in Pemberton before being identified for its paleontological value? Check your backyards and cellars and let us know!

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