Analysis of an Ice Age mastodon tusk found in Indiana shows the extinct animal died in a bloody battle 100 miles from home during mating season 13,200 years ago.
Researchers followed the life of the first elephant, from its regular migrations to its final moments, by scanning a meter-long tusk and performing chemical tests.
Amazingly, they were not only able to show how the eight-ton creature died, but also how old it was at the time and where it traveled from.
They discovered that the giant named Buesching had been killed at the age of 34 in what is now northeastern Indiana, USA.
Investigators say he was fatally injured after the tip of another beast’s fang pierced the right side of his skull.
Buesching had traveled to his favorite summer breeding ground every year for the last three years of his life, venturing north from his winter home, and may have also spent time exploring the center and southern Michigan, less than 250 miles away.
Lead author of the new study, Dr Joshua Miller, from the University of Cincinnati, said: “The unique finding of this study is that, for the first time, we have been able to document the annual overland migration of a individual of an extinct species.
“Using new modeling techniques and a powerful set of geochemical tools, we were able to show that large male giants, such as bushes, migrate annually to breeding sites.”
The American research team used a bandsaw to cut a thin longitudinal slab from the center of the tusk, which was longer and fuller than the one on the left, also discovered in the mastodon remains.
They were able to reconstruct the evolution of landscape use patterns during two key periods: adolescence and late adulthood.
Co-author Professor Daniel Fisher, curator at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, said: “You have a lifetime ahead of you in this defense.
‘The growth and development of the animal, as well as its history of changes in land use and behavior, all of this history is captured and recorded in the structure and composition of the tusk.’
Like modern elephants, Buesching would likely have remained near his home in central Indiana as a young male before breaking away from the female-led herd as a teenager.
As a single adult, he traveled farther and more frequently, often covering nearly 20 miles in a month.
Landscape use also varied seasonally, with a dramatic northward expansion in summer that included breeding grounds.
Dr Miller said: “Every time you started the hot season, the bush giant kept going to the same place: bam, bam, bam.
“The clarity of this signal was unexpected and really exciting.”
In the harsh Pleistocene climate, migration and other movements were essential to the reproductive success of mastodons and other large mammals.
However, little is known about how their geographic range and mobility varies seasonally or changes with sexual maturity.
Techniques for analyzing the ratios of different forms, or isotopes, of the elements strontium and oxygen in ancient tusks are helping scientists unravel some mysteries.
Modern mastodons, mammoths, and elephants belong to a group of large, flexible-bodied mammals called proboscidea.
They have elongated upper incisors that protrude from their skull like fangs. With each year of the animal’s life, new layers of growth are deposited on top of the existing ones, arranged in alternating bands of light and dark.
They look like the annual rings of a tree.
The growth layers of a tusk look like an inverted stack of ice cream cones with birth and death times recorded at the top and bottom, respectively.
Mastodons were herbivores, feeding on trees and shrubs. As they grew, chemicals from their food and drinking water were absorbed into their body tissues, including their fangs.
The strontium and oxygen isotopes in the growth layers of the tusks have allowed researchers to reconstruct Büsching’s travels as an adolescent and as an active breeding adult.
Three dozen samples were taken during adolescence – during and after leaving the matriarchal herd – and 30 samples in the final years of the animal’s life.
A tiny borer under the microscope polished half a millimeter from the edge of each layer of growth, each covering a period of one to two months, and the resulting dust was collected and chemically analyzed.
Defense Isotope Reports provided geographic fingerprints, which were compared to specific locations on maps, showing how strontium moved through the landscape.
Oxygen isotope levels, which show strong seasonal variations, helped the researchers identify the season in which a particular defensive layer formed.
Both types of samples were taken from the same narrow growth layers, allowing precise conclusions to be drawn about where Büsching traveled and when.
A computer spatial model was used to estimate the distance traveled by the animal and to identify likely locations.
Dr Miller said: “The field of strontium isotope geochemistry is a really promising tool for paleontology, archaeology, historical ecology and even forensic biology.”
“But really, we’ve only scratched the surface of what this information can tell us.”
The next step is to analyze another person’s defenses, whether it’s another man or another woman.
Buesching is named after Dan Buesching, who found his remains at his peat farm near Fort Wayne in 1998.
A life-size fiberglass skeleton is on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor.
Mastodons are cousins of elephants and mammoths. They died out around 10,000 years ago.
The study was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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