Around 13,200 years ago, a roving male mastodon died in a bloody mating-season battle with a rival in what today is northeast Indiana, nearly 100 miles from his home territory, according to the first study to document the annual migration of an individual animal from an extinct species.

The 8-ton adult, known as the Buesching mastodon, was killed when an opponent punctured the right side of his skull with a tusk tip, a mortal wound that was revealed to researchers when the animal’s remains were recovered from a peat farm near Fort Wayne in 1998.

Northeast Indiana was likely a preferred summer mating ground for this solitary rambler, who made the trek annually during the last three years of his life, venturing north from his cold-season home, according to a paper scheduled for online publication June 13 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The study also shows that the Buesching bull may have spent time exploring central and southern Michigan, which seems fitting for a creature whose full-size fiberglass-cast skeleton is on display at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History in Ann Arbor

“The result that is unique to this study is that for the first time, we’ve been able to document the annual overland migration of an individual from an extinct species,” said University of Cincinnati paleoecologist Joshua Miller, the study’s first author.

“Using new modeling techniques and a powerful geochemical toolkit, we’ve been able to show that large male mastodons like Buesching migrated every year to the mating grounds.” 

U-M paleontologist and study co-leader Daniel Fisher participated in the Buesching mastodon excavation 24 years ago. He later used a bandsaw to cut a thin, lengthwise slab from the center of the animal’s banana-shaped, 9.5-foot right tusk, which is longer and more completely preserved than the left.

That slab was used for the new isotopic and life-history analyses, which enabled scientists to reconstruct changing patterns of landscape use during two key periods: adolescence and the final years of adulthood. The Buesching mastodon died in a battle over access to mates at age 34, according to the researchers.

“You’ve got a whole life spread out before you in that tusk,” said Fisher, who has studied mastodons and mammoths for more than 40 years and helped excavate several dozen of the extinct elephant relatives.

“The growth and development of the animal, as well as its history of changing land use and changing behavior—all of that history is captured and recorded in the structure and composition of the tusk,” said Fisher, a professor of earth and environmental sciences, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and a curator at the U-M Museum of Paleontology.

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