Quirks & Quarks

Digging into 75,000 year old mastodon dung to learn about ancient Nova Scotia

The team that discovered the poop said even the stench was preserved

The team that discovered the poop said even the stench was preserved

Researchers working with the Nova Scotia museum excavate mastodon remains in 1991. (Robert Grantham, Nova Scotia Museum)

In 1991, two partial mastodon skeletons were found near East Milford, Nova Scotia dating back 75,000 years. However, bones weren't the only things these mighty pachyderms left behind. 

At the same site researchers found a rich bed of mastodon dung. Now a new analysis of that dung is helping to paint a picture of Nova Scotia during the last ice age.

Scott Cocker, a Ph.D. student with the Permafrost Archives Science Laboratory at the University of Alberta performed the analysis. He used samples collected at the time of the original discovery.

This mastodon dung sample contained spruce, birch, insects, algae and freshwater sponge remains. (Nova Scotia Museum)

The researchers who excavated it described it as remarkably well-preserved, Cocker said, who added it was also "as stenchy as it was as the day it was layed down, and with a bright green colour."

He attributes the remarkable preservation of the dung to being buried in layers of mud that kept oxygen away from the feces.

Cocker's analysis of the dung revealed what the animal had been eating, which gave a snapshot of the environment of the time. 

Mastodons were browsers, eating forest plants, and a great deal of spruce and some birch. There were also some surprises, said Cocker. 

"We found a bark beetle in there, and we can imagine it was on a spruce tree, doing its thing, then all of sudden it was part of the mastodon's meal."

A Mastodon skeleton display at the opening of the Royal Alberta Museum, in Edmonton (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson)

This and other evidence suggests that 75,000 years ago the environment in Nova Scotia was not too different from what it is today. 

Unfortunately for the mastodons, this was not going to last. It was the beginning of a shift to colder temperatures that would last tens of thousands of years, said Cocker.

"This is the last kind of time you were seeing what was a 'happy environment' for these mastodons where the climate wasn't too cold, where the environment was just right."

You can listen to Scott Cocker's full interview with Bob McDonald at the link above.

Produced by Amanda Buckiewicz, written by Jim Lebans


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