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The story of Fred the mastodon


It can be tough to reconstruct a life in detail after 13,000 years. So allow us to present you something extraordinary - the story of Fred. Fred was born somewhere in the Midwestern United States and likely spent much of his early life at home. When it was finally time to forge a path of his own, he said goodbye to his family and set off into the wild.


For the rest of his life, Fred roamed the plains of what is now Indiana. Every summer, he'd compete against other males for a mate. These competitions were violent, physical battles, and one summer, one of these fights brought Fred to an untimely end. Dead at 34 years old, Fred's body sank into the swampy earth.

SHAPIRO: These days, Fred's skeleton is preserved in the Indiana State Museum. It's 9 feet tall and 25 feet long. His head alone weighs over 300 pounds.

SUMMERS: Fred was a mastodon, also known as the Buesching mastodon, named after the family farm where his remains were found. He is a distant relative of the modern elephant.

JOSH MILLER: So the Buesching mastodon was preserved in a swampy area, and those kind of environments are really conducive to excellent preservation.

SHAPIRO: That's Josh Miller, a paleoecologist at the University of Cincinnati. He recently co-authored a paper studying much of Fred's life. The study is unique because it's a really detailed look into the life of an individual animal who lived such a long time ago.

SUMMERS: You see, mastodons' tusks grow throughout their lives in distinct layers, kind of like the rings on a tree trunk. And since Fred's tusks were so well preserved...

MILLER: You get a daily record of its behavior, of its landscape use and the season in which that tusk and (inaudible) was grown.

SHAPIRO: Basically, the nutrients that build the layers of Fred's tusks can tell us where he was at different points in his life. The team specifically looked at variation in the elements oxygen and strontium.

MILLER: So every element comes in different isotopes, kind of different flavors, if you will, of an isotope that are slightly - that weigh slightly more or slightly less.

SUMMERS: Different isotope blends are unique to certain areas and seasons, and they're reflected in the local plants and water. So as Fred roamed the plains, the food he ate and the water he drank imprinted those unique isotope blends into his tusks.

SHAPIRO: You can think of it kind of like a dated passport stamp. Each layer of Fred's tusk reflects where and when that piece grew.

SUMMERS: And when he was young, Fred would have stuck close to home with his herd and grown a lot.

MILLER: But there will be a year that the growth is really reduced. They just don't grow much that year.

SUMMERS: That's the year Miller's analysis starts, and it is the first year Fred was fending for himself after getting kicked out of his herd.

MILLER: And they're essentially just really obnoxious, and they - just getting in everyone's hair. They're kind of getting in the way. They're just not particularly helpful members of the herd. And at that point, the mom and the aunts will essentially boot that individual from that maternal herd.

SHAPIRO: Then as an adult male, Fred would visit the same area in northeastern Indiana every summer, presumably to find a mate. And around this time in his life, Fred's tusks start to show some damage when rival male mastodons are competing for females.

MILLER: They get in these huge battles where one or even both combatants may die.

SHAPIRO: Their tusks are their primary weapons. And one summer, an opponent stabbed his tusk through Fred's skull and killed him.

SUMMERS: Although he died over 13,000 years ago, Fred's legacy lives on in his tusks. You can visit him and pay your respects at the Indiana State Museum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kai McNamee
[Copyright 2024 NPR]