Mastodon bones found in backyard pond


HYDE PARK, N.Y. -- On a road with suburban homes, swimming pools and minivans, a 12,000-year-old mastodon has turned a quiet backyard pond into a pit of scientific inquiry.

Last summer, after Larry Lozier, 40, decided to dredge and deepen the pond in his backyard on Haviland Road here, he came upon what looked like a large muddy log. Under the mud, however, Lozier discovered a knobby joint.

"I thought, 'Oh my God, there is something really unusual here,'" he recalled.

It turned out to be a piece of an unusually well-preserved mastodon skeleton, which is attracting the attention of scientists from around the country to a backyard in Dutchess County.

But back on that July day, all Lozier knew was that the bone was heavy, brownish-red and more than 3 feet long. Maybe it was just a cow or horse bone, he told himself, something from a Clydesdale, maybe. So he called a neighbor who is a horsewoman, thinking she might know.

'That's no Clydesdale'

"Larry," she said, "that's no Clydesdale."

Lozier began telephoning local colleges, trying to find someone who might come over to take a look.

No luck.

"Nobody believed me," he said. "They thought some guy from Hyde Park found a cow bone and thinks it's a dinosaur."

For days, he drove around with what turned out to be the top part of a mastodon's leg in the back of his pickup truck. He took it to a barbecue where friends stood around and gawked. He took it to work at the sheet metal shop he owns with his brother, Tom. From there, he called Dr. Christopher R. Lindner, the archaeologist in residence at Bard College in nearby Annandale-on-Hudson.

"It sounded likely to me that they really had found something," Lindner said. "So I drove over, had a look at it, and sure enough, it did seem like a leg bone of a large, extinct elephant. So I went back to the college and began to call people."

Since then, the tidy backyard of the nearly four-acre property where Lozier has lived all his life has been torn apart. Pumps run all day to drain the pond, where Lozier fished and skated as a boy, so that scientists and volunteers can crawl through the mud, looking for more mastodon bones.

For a time, though, it was still just family and friends turning up a piece of tusk here, a bit of shoulder blade there. The Loziers, Larry and Sheryl, were eager to share the news of their discovery with neighbors, and began toting the bones around in the red wagon of their 6-year-old daughter, Laura. They even took them to Brownie meetings, the local middle school and the Dutchess County Fair.

A professional turn

This summer, things took a more professional turn when scientists from the Paleontological Research Institution in Ithaca, set up camp. On Aug. 21, their first day of digging, Elizabeth Humbert, 26, the assistant to the director of the institution, found the mastodon's pelvis and lower vertebrae.

"I hit it with the shovel and could tell a difference right away," she said. "So then I started digging with my hands, and then when I couldn't reach down any further into the mud and I could still feel it, we knew this thing was huge."

A few days later, at the institution's request, Wayne Mallen, who usually digs pits for septic tanks, brought his backhoe over and found the skull.

"Doing this work, I've found lots of things -- chicken bones, cow bones, zillions of bottles -- but nothing prehistoric," he said.

Lozier says he now has about 80 or 90 muddy mastodon bones, some of them stowed in Ziploc bags. All the bones are being stored in his garage as the digging continues. Eventually, the scientists expect to have a nearly complete skeleton.

College and high school students come by every day to help with the digging while Lozier hands out beer and soda to the curious.

"This is incredible preservation," said Dr. Warren D. Allmon, director of the institution, standing knee deep in the thick, smelly mud. He said he planned to make the Hyde Park bones, donated by Lozier, a major exhibit in the institution's soon-to-open museum in Ithaca.

Allmon usually deals with extinct mollusks, so the mastodon is an eye-opener, even for him. "Once you're down there in the mud with it, it's just transcendent," he said.

Lozier's neighbors are also fascinated by the creature.

'Maybe I got one'

"I come over here every single day to check it out," said Gene Toohey, who lives across the street. "It's great. I've got the same gray mud at my house. Maybe I got one of these in my backyard, too."

The scientists said they believed that the Loziers' pond was created 18,000 years ago as the last Ice Age was ending and that the mastodon, a 35-year-old male about 9 feet tall at the shoulder, died 12,000 years ago. It might have become stuck in the mud. It might have been butchered by the first humans in the Hudson Valley. Or both. The circumstances of its death are among the questions to answer, they say.

The discovery of such a creature in the middle of suburbia may seem bizarre, but it is not unheard of. The remains of more than 100 mastodons have been discovered in New York state (though 1899 was the last time one was unearthed in Dutchess County), and they often show up where people dig for large development.

"Today, there's this boundary between urban, suburban and rural, but of course, these are pretty arbitrary in terms of geology," said Daniel C. Fisher, curator of paleontology at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and a nationally recognized expert on mastodons. "What's interesting here is that this is a well-preserved specimen, and it has the potential to contribute quite a bit to our understanding of what was going on in the area 12,000 years ago."

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