Mammoths of the Ice Age

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(HOST) Cold weather inspires commentator Ted Levin to take a very long view of history – reflecting that mammoths once walked where we walk today.

(LEVIN) This time of year our ponies look like they’ve just stepped off the wall of a cave painting in their thick winter coats. They fire my imagination about Ice Age mammals, evoking images of the Pleistocene: bands of mammoths and mastodons – trunks, tusks, floppy ears – roaming across a landscape that could have been the Connecticut Valley, circa 10,000 years ago, when tundra reached down the Green Mountains to the edge of the emerging spruce woods.

In 1848, railroad construction workers in Mount Holly unearthed a pile of fossil wooly mammoth bones, the Ice Age elephant whose remains are more often associated with Alaska and Siberia. The discovery suggests that Vermont was once barren and windswept, an arctic outpost that attracted roving herds of tundra mammals.

More information has been gathered about wooly mammoths than any other extinct species. One intact mammoth, discovered in Siberia, had died so suddenly in a glacial crevice that it held twenty-four pounds of food in its mouth.

As days grew colder and shorter, a wooly mammoth would begin to store an enormous amount of fat to buffer it against the arctic winter. Sinuses on the top of the head, on either side of a large ridge of pinched bone called the sagittal crest, filled with fat, hence the massive cranial lump. Behind its neck another huge mound of seasonal fat developed, much like a camel’s hump. The additional fat was a hedge against diminished food resources; by the time spring arrived, a wooly mammoth would have metabolized its store of fat.

I love to imagine herds of mammoths walking along the Connecticut River. These enormous mammals must have been a powerful force in the evolution of the plants upon which they fed. Paleontologists believe the thorns of cactus and ocotillo developed as self-defense against the giant ground sloth; and that the five-inch, cylindrical fruit of pawpaw, a hardwood of the southern Appalachians, enticed mastodons to disperse its seeds. After feeding the sweet fruit to raccoons and opossums, as well as to an elephant, a biologist discovered that the pawpaw seeds germinated best in the manure pile generated by the elephant.

Where are the ghosts of evolution in Vermont?

Could stories have been passed down through millennia – what Abenaki author Joseph Bruchac calls “the long memory” – into the age of Woodland Indians, a journey of, say, 8,000 years? In the “Snowy Owl and the Great White Heron,” a tale Bruchac retells, huge mound-shaped beasts, each with two long, white teeth, drank the People’s springs and lakes dry and squashed their scouts until Snowy Owl tricked them into falling over. Then they were shot in the soles of their feet with ivory arrowheads sprung from ivory bows.

The idea that wooly mammoths survived to the fringe of recorded history, brushing against species of trees that still grow in Vermont, thrills me. They likely knew the lilt of our brooks, the song of the chickadee, the drumming of the grouse.

This is Ted Levin of Coyote Hollow in Thetford Ctr.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer and winner of the 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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