On a recent trip to Alaska, every port town we visited had stores proudly displaying 3-to-5-foot-long fossilized woolly mammoth tusks, huge perfectly preserved mammoth teeth and even some complete jaws. Having studied and taught geology for more than half of my life, I was in heaven. I was and am that girl who comes home with pockets full of rocks and fossils, no matter where I go.
Seeing these mammoth fossils reminded me of a lesser-known fact that in 2014, thanks to the tenacity of then third-grader Olivia McConnell, South Carolina adopted the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) as the official state fossil. Prior to this time, South Carolina was one of only a handful of states that didn’t have a state fossil. McConnell wrote legislators stating that one of the earliest discoveries of this fossil was by slaves on a South Carolina plantation in 1725. Despite a lot of pushback from creationist lawmakers who wanted to include language from the book of Genesis into this declaration, the bill passed the General Assembly without any religious amendments and was signed into law by Gov. Nikki Haley.
During these dog days of summer, it’s hard to imagine a time when the Lowcountry wasn’t a sauna. But in the not-so-distant-past, it was considerably cooler and drier. Approximately 21,000 years ago during the last “Glacial Maximum” (colloquially known as the last Ice Age), megafauna such as the Columbian mammoth, saber-toothed cats, 13-foot-tall ground sloths, mastodons, giant armadillos, tapirs (ancient swine) and even giant beavers tromped around the Southeast.
According to the United States Geological Survey, ice sheets covered approximately 25% of the Earth’s land surface at this time. In North America, ice sheets extended as far south on the east coast as Long Island, New York, and to southern Illinois in the Midwest. With a significant amount of the Earth’s freshwater resources tied up in land ice, global sea level was over 400 feet below modern levels. The ice sheet margins pushed the polar jet stream further south causing the Southeast to become cooler and drier than modern times. The Lowcountry was far from a frozen tundra, but the climate and its vegetative landscape was different enough to support the megafauna that migrated and, for a short time, thrived here.
The proof is in the teeth
The size and shape of fossil animal teeth can tell scientists about the diet of various species. Scientists can then infer what the landscape was like. Mammoth teeth are large, elongated and flat, which are great for grinding grasses and possibly other flowering plants, indicating more of a grassland environment. The mammoth’s tusks were elongated incisors that weren’t used for eating at all. Instead they used their tusks for digging up vegetation for food, fighting and possibly sexual selection. Scientists observe these behaviors from the modern living relative of the mammoth, the Asian elephant.
Often confused for mammoths, is the American Mastodon (Mammut americanum) which also lived in the area during the last Ice Age. They were smaller and stockier than mammoths with shorter, straighter tusks. Although seemingly similar, mammoths and mastodons branched off from a common ancestor around 5 million years ago occupying different ecological niches. Their molars have conical tips indicating they were able to grind through woody plant material found in forested areas in the Lowcountry.
How did they get here and where did they go?
According to scientists, mammoths and mastodons migrated at different times from Eurasia via the Bering land bridge in Alaska during one of the many glacial periods over the last 5 million to 6 million years. Fossils of both of these animals can be found as far south as Mexico. Unfortunately at the end of the last Ice Age (around 10,000 years before present-day), nearly all Pleistocene megafauna went extinct. Hypotheses of their demise include habitat loss from a warming climate and rising seas, competition for scarce food sources and over-hunting by early humans. It was likely a combination of these environmental stressors.
Both the Mace Brown Museum of Natural History at the College of Charleston and the Charleston Museum have excellent fossil displays of Pleistocene megafauna found here in the Southeast. Ongoing research at the College of Charleston continues to help refine the Lowcountry’s prehistoric landscape. Pay them a visit to learn more about how the land under your feet has changed over geologic time. Learning about times past, can help put our days (even the hottest ones) on earth into perspective.
Toni Reale is the owner of Roadside Blooms, a unique flower and plant shop in Park Circle in North Charleston. It specializes in weddings, events and everyday deliveries using nearly 100% American- and locally grown blooms. Online at roadsideblooms.com. 4610 Spruill Ave., Suite 102, North Charleston.
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