Photo of the back of Kuiper's head looking through a fence at bison.

Thomas Jefferson LOVED Mastodons

“I cannot however help believing that this animal [Megalonyx] as well as the Mammoth are still existing.” Thomas Jefferson (letter to John Stuart), 1796

Happy National Fossil day!! This is a pic of Kuiper checking out bison for the first time at Big Bone Lick State Park in Kentucky. With a name like that, I had to stop at the park on our summer road trip. ? It is so named for the large animal fossils it contains and the salt springs which attracted them. It wasn’t til I got home that I learned about the pretty wild history behind the place.

Did you know that Thomas Jefferson was obsessed with mastodons?? (He called them mammoths as the distinction had not yet been established.) According to Smithsonian Magazine, President Jefferson even once laid out his collection of bones on the floor of the East Room in the White House. In 1803, while instructing Lewis and Clark on their Expedition, he asked them to look for “the remains or accounts of any [animals] which may be deemed rare or extinct.” At the time, the idea of whether or not species could go extinct was up for debate.

While Lewis and Clark failed to find evidence of living mastodons, Lewis did collect some fossil samples at Big Bone Lick to send to Jefferson. ¬†The fossils were unfortunately lost in a river on their way (but a live prairie dog in a different shipment made it and even lived in the White House for a while!) In 1807, Jefferson sent Clark back to Big Bone Lick to¬†excavate. Thus, Thomas Jefferson was responsible for the first palaeontology expedition in the United States, and Big Bone Lick rightfully claims to be the “birthplace of American Vertebrate Paleontology.”

Several animal species were first discovered at Big Bone Lick, including Harlan’s muskox, the Stag Moose, and the Ancient Bison. In addition, fossils of a number of other extinct animals have been recovered, including American mastodon, woolly mammoth, flat-headed peccary, complex-toothed horse, and two types of giant ground sloth. One of the sloths is named “Megalonyx jeffersonii,” in honor of Jefferson.

What’s your favorite prehistoric animal? Mine is the woolly mammoth!

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