The Dead Elephant in the Room
It’s the mid-1990s, and Dan Fisher gets a phone call about a dead elephant. That’s no surprise. As a curator at LSA’s Museum of Paleontology, Fisher often deals with the remains of dead mammoths and mastodons. But this is an unusual request. The Toledo Zoo asks Fisher to help exhume the remains of an elephant that it had buried in a city landfill when the animal died 17 years earlier. Space at the landfill has grown scarce, and the zoo has been asked to remove whatever is left of its elephant.
Fisher grabs his “Mastodon First Aid Kit” on his way out the door. He has assembled the kit for occasions just like this, when he needs to rush out to collect a specimen at a moment’s notice. He has four or five students and colleagues from the museum in tow. Did someone bring the shovels? Check. Ropes? Got ’em. Meter sticks, buckets, tags, cameras, surveyor’s flags? Load them all in the pickup truck. Let’s go!
Fisher, who also is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, sees great value in having access to the zoo’s elephant skeleton. He’ll be able to use the bones to gain perspective on the ancient mammoths and mastodons that he digs up at sites in Michigan and around the world. He wants to closely examine the elephant’s ribs and spine, so he can understand the anatomy of those bones from one end of the animal to the other. Wrists, ankles, and toe bones are especially hard to get, and Fisher has all kinds of questions that he’d like to answer about the foot anatomy of his mammoths and mastodons. A skeleton like that would offer truckloads of information, and Fisher can’t wait to get his hands on it.
How hard could it be to get elephant bones from Toledo to Ann Arbor, anyway?
The first problem—and it’s a big one—is that nobody can remember where the elephant is buried. The Toledo landfill is flat and featureless; if any sort of identifying marker once served as the elephant’s tombstone, no one can find it. Bum luck—Fisher takes his team back to Ann Arbor. But he soon gets word that they’ve found the corpse at the landfill, and Fisher once again grabs the Mastodon First Aid Kit and his crew. Again, they head south in Fisher’s covered pickup truck, eager for bones.
Fisher’s Mastodon First Aid Kit contains the low-tech equipment that a paleontologist uses in the field: shovels, surveyor’s flags, tape measures, buckets, and metal probe rods. Note: Digging up a long-dead elephant with these tools will give the items an awful stench. Photo by Rob Hess
The second problem is unearthed with the elephant, when its carcass starts stinking up Toledo. Thoroughly uncovering the body has taken hours of shovel work, and Fisher now stands at the edge of a very large hole, considering the massive body below and the equally huge odor wafting up. Fisher was hoping for a pile of well-ordered bones that the group could identify, label, and then load into his pickup for more detailed study back at the museum. Instead, Fisher is stuck strategizing how to remove and transport an intact, middle-aged, circus-sized, long-dead Asian elephant. If it’s been underground for 17 years, why, Fisher wonders, does it smell so horrible? Not rotten, but strongly, strangely sour. Why hasn’t the elephant decomposed?
Because the corpse is intact, Fisher decides that they can spear a towing strap through the elephant’s body and under its spine, then hoist it out of the hole using some of the landfill’s massive construction equipment. Of course, the whole elephant won’t fit into Fisher’s pickup; this job necessitates a much larger vehicle. But Fisher needs permission from the mayor of Toledo to drive a city truck full of elephant up to Ann Arbor. The mayor is enthusiastic about getting rid of the elephant. Fisher has permission to borrow anything he needs.
Even Vultures Stay Away
Fisher takes the elephant to a farm just outside Ann Arbor. The Toledo truck driver opens the tailgate and raises the bed of the truck. The elephant begins to slide, spills out the back, and lands on the ground with a thunderous thud.
LSA Museum of Paleontology curator Dan Fisher (right) and former Toledo Zoo elephant keeper Don Redfox examine the feet of an elephant at the zoo. Fisher has observed live animals to resolve some of his research questions, such as the identity of ancient footprints preserved at his dig sites. Photo by Cindy Darling-Fisher
The elephant bones are still buried inside the elephant, and Fisher brainstorms a way to get them out. He realizes that this has become the perfect opportunity to replicate the experience of a prehistoric human, who would have had to butcher by hand any mammoth he killed. Fisher pulls out his stone tools, which he’d crafted himself with the same types of rock used by early Americans. The jagged edge of his stone knife allows clean cuts between the animal’s muscle and skin, and the task carries him back to the late Ice Age.
It’s not a straightforward translation from skinning a small game animal to skinning an animal on the scale of an elephant, though. Fisher can’t casually lift up the leg of the elephant and flip it over, for instance, so he has to figure out a way to handle the gargantuan creature and gain access to its entire body. After some thought, Fisher devises a low-tech system of generating leverage to handle the massive limbs. Using a rope and a severed tree branch as a lever system, he manages to lift and secure each leg as he cuts. The primitive system works. Fisher butchers the elephant until he’s satisfied that just one person, a set of stone tools, and some common sense are sufficient for the task. He then covers the remains with a massive pile of old cow manure, in hopes of accelerating their decomposition. The good news: The manure also covers the odor of the elephant.
The bad news is that all of Fisher’s shovels and the Mastodon First Aid Kit have traveled back from Toledo in his pickup; the truck is going to stink for the next few years. And so will the elephant. Even vultures stay away. More than three years pass before the elephant decomposes to the point where Fisher can separate the bones without too much trouble, and it takes even longer for the fat to waste away.
When Fisher finally uncovers the skeleton, he takes carload after carload of bones to the museum, rolls them on carts past colleagues who plug their noses at the funk, and ends up with a pretty good specimen. But after Fisher has cleaned, tagged, and stored the bones, some questions about the elephant linger: Why did it fail to decompose after nearly two decades in the landfill? How was it successfully (if unintentionally) preserved? Back when Fisher unloaded the gear that he and the crew used to help dig up the elephant, he noticed that the metal equipment had badly rusted in the span of a single day. The rapid rust suggested that the corpse was extremely acidic, which could explain the elephant’s sour smell and, perhaps, the delay in its decomposition. The rust seemed like a clue, leading Fisher to wonder whether prehistoric humans could have preserved mammoth-sized quantities of meat by exploiting similar conditions in the natural landscape.
Fisher has a way to test his guess in the real world. After all, dead animals are his expertise.
Never Look a Draft Horse in the Mouth
During culling season at the E.S. George Reserve, near Ann Arbor, Fisher gets deer heads for free. He can use them as a proof of concept, to see whether ancient hunters could have preserved excess meat by using freshwater ponds and lakes as open air refrigerators. He chooses different but complementary sites for this experiment: a bog, which is highly acidic, and a pond. The sites are the closest he can get to replicating the ancient environments in which the mammoths and mastodons that he studies have been preserved.
The unexpected preservation of the Toledo Zoo elephant meant that muscles and ligaments still held its bones together at the joints. Simple tools made it possible for Fisher to test his ideas about the butchery practices of ancient humans, including their methods of disarticulating animal skeletons. Photo by David Fox
Fisher dunks the deer heads in the water, checking back every few weeks or so, and finds that the heads stay remarkably fresh in both the bog and the pond. Emboldened, Fisher puts a few legs of lamb in the water, too. Each week, he returns to pull out the meat he’s cached, and it looks much like leftovers from the fridge. Although it develops a scuzzy layer on the outer surface, the meat inside stays pink and fresh, despite smelling like stinky cheese.
Eventually, Fisher gets the chance to test underwater meat preservation on the scale a prehistoric hunter would have recognized. When a draft horse in the area dies, its owners donate the hefty body to Fisher for scientific study. Again, he takes the opportunity to practice butchery with his handcrafted stone tools. He then submerges sections of the horse under the frozen surface of a pond. As the months pass, Fisher sees that the horsemeat develops a familiar slimy layer on its outer surface, while the bright red meat inside stays preserved.
All signs so far point to the success of Fisher’s underwater preservation tactics, but he wants to be absolutely sure that the method has kept the meat in good condition. Fisher sends samples of the lamb to a lab to see if any harmful bacteria have colonized the meat.
To his surprise, the lamb that stayed in a pond for nine months contains fewer harmful bacteria than some lamb that he’d kept in his freezer.
By this point, Fisher has gathered enough experience and evidence to understand why. The cheese-like odor of the meat suggested that lactobacilli, the bacteria responsible for creating cheese and yogurt, readily colonized the dead animals, at least under acidic conditions. Lactobacilli release lactic acid as they metabolize, which probably created an environment that—in tandem with the acidic, low-oxygen conditions of the water—naturally pickled the meat and prevented the growth of putrefying bacteria. But cold water temperatures were not necessary to preserve the meats effectively; the lactobacilli kept meat from spoiling through the spring thaw and even into the summer.
All of this means that that old, waterlogged horsemeat should be okay to eat, right?
Fisher, of course, knows how to find out.
A Prehistoric Dinner
Fisher builds a fire on the ice of the pond and draws out a chunk of the horse. He slices a piece, stabs it on a stick, and holds it over the flames. It takes forever to cook, and the center stays cold and unappetizing. Fisher reconsiders, letting the fire burn to embers. He cuts a thick steak from the horsemeat and grills it directly on the coals. The method works beautifully—the moist meat conducts the heat inward, cooking the center before the exterior becomes charred. The horsemeat tastes kind of like beef, but sweeter.
Fisher sums up the benefits of ancient underwater meat storage pretty pragmatically. “Let’s say that you manage to kill a mastodon or mammoth,” he explains. “There’s no way you can deal with thousands of pounds of meat in an afternoon or even a week. What are you going to do with all of it? Make jerky? If so, will you carry the gigantic load on your back, when dire wolves the size of bears and bears the size of rhinos would be happy to get at the meat?” No, Fisher supposes. Probably not.
Fisher’s unconventional experiments have served as “an imperfect model of the Pleistocene world,” as he puts it. Of course, he’s stuck using modern methods to test hypotheses about ancient environments. But his successes—including his hard-won elephant-bone collection and his prehistoric dinner of horsemeat—show that he can empathize with ancient humans, understand how they interacted with other animals and each other, and come up with some wild (but plausible) conclusions about life when mammoths roamed the earth. The more that Fisher’s explorations of ancient hunting and meat-storage tactics work out, the easier it becomes for him to stitch his ideas and observations together into a credible historical account.
His nontraditional methods have made him a researcher who is renowned in his field—one of the first paleontologists to get word that a bulldozer has struck a mammoth tusk in Colorado dirt.
Old Bones, New Tricks
It’s October 2010, and Fisher gets a call about a dead mammoth.
The excavation of a reservoir for the Aspen-area Snowmass Village ski resort has stalled as the construction crew examines the unexpected objects poking out of their dig site. They’ve found not just the tusk, but more skeleton fragments in other areas of the site.
During decades of work unearthing elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and other animals in various stages of decomposition, Fisher has amassed a large collection of bones. He and other researchers store more than 100,000 specimens in the basement of LSA's Museum of Paleontology. Photo by Rob Hess
Just like with the elephant, Fisher is ready to go at a moment’s notice. He hops a plane to Colorado with his First Aid Kit. He’s the first mammoth expert on the scene, but the Denver Museum of Nature & Science already has assembled a team of scientists to begin digging at the site. While some members of this “tusk force” pull out bone after bone of a staggering variety of animals, Fisher and others carefully uncover a mammoth at the spot where the bulldozer bumped the tusk.
Soon, the ground freezes enough that their shovels don’t work. The researchers regroup in the spring with more scientists, volunteers, funding, and equipment. They dig relentlessly for weeks and find a grand total of 4,826 bones that once belonged to animals like mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, bison, horses, deer, and camels. Remnants of smaller creatures, like ancient snakes, otters, birds, salamanders, and rodents ratchet the bone count up to more than 20,000. The researchers also find insects, small crustaceans, ancient tree trunks, pine cones, pollen, and even prehistoric leaves that turn from green to black upon exposure to the modern air.
The team digs through layers of sediment that mark millennia. More than 150,000 years ago, the site was a glacial lake that may have refrigerated and certainly helped preserve the remains of entire communities of animals. “There aren’t many other places like that, other than the deep sea,” Fisher says, “with 60,000 to 80,000 years of history recorded in a stratigraphic sequence where you can see how animals have changed through that span of time.” For him, the Snowmass site offers a unique opportunity to study an ecosystem-level response to dramatic climate change that spans both glacial conditions and a major interglacial period.
Fisher approaches this opportunity with the same innovative spirit that he brought to the mystery elephant almost 20 years ago, only this time, his tools are somewhat more advanced than a stone knife. He and graduate student Michael Cherney (’02, M.S. ’11) have CT-scanned about 20 mastodon tusks from Snowmass at the U-M School of Dentistry, and Fisher looks forward to mapping in 3D the remains of a mammoth they found surrounded by boulders and preserved under strange circumstances.
The idea is to be open to new ways of piecing together evidence and testing what might be outlandish hypotheses by using whatever means are necessary and available. For Fisher, whether it’s an elephant in a landfill or a cache of bones in the bed of a prehistoric lake, one thing is for sure: You never know what you’re going to find.
Or what you’ll have to eat once you find it.