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A Mammoth Death Match Preserved for the Ages
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A Mammoth Death Match Preserved for the Ages

Science

A Mammoth Death Match Preserved for the Ages
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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

In Nebraska a rare and unusual Ice-Age fossil will soon be publicly displayed for the first time. The fossil was discovered four decades ago, but has been in storage ever since. From Nebraska, Public Radio's Sarah McCammon reports.

Ms. SARAH MCCAMMON (Reporter/Producer, NET Radio): In 1962 in the Nebraska panhandle a pair of workmen stumbled on a large thigh bone while installing an electric line on a ranch. That summer, 20-year-old paleontology student Mike Voorhies was in the area working on a fossil dig. After working at the site for a couple days, Voorhies and his crew realized the men had found the intact remains of an entire Ice-Age mammoth.

Mr. MICHAEL VOORHIES (Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, UNL): And then once we got to the skull, it turned out, well, there's one tusk, there's two tusks. Uh, oh, three tusks; what's going on here? Even a young student realizes an elephant only has two tusks. So it gradually dawned on us that we actually had two animals locked in a death struggle. And probably the most exciting single fossil that I've ever seen.

Ms. MCCAMMON: Mike Voorhies is now in his sixties and Curator of Paleontology at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. And the mammoths, after decades of being in storage and viewed almost exclusively by researchers, are being prepared to travel four hundred miles west. Voorhies says there's no other known fossil quite like it anywhere in the world. The two mammoth's tusks are locked together, intertwined like a pair of twisted tree trunks.

Mr. VOORHIES: It's actually the old story of they're fighting over sex.

Ms. MCCAMMON: Like modern elephants, scientists believe male mammoths periodically produced extra testosterone which drove them to fight over mates. University of Michigan Professor Dan Fisher is studying the mammoth's tusks looking for clues about why their decedents went extinct. Fisher says they offer scientists a rare glimpse of fossilized animal behavior.

Mr. DANIEL FISHER (Paleontologist, University of Michigan): To find multiple individuals as it were caught in the act of some interaction that was critical to their lifestyle, their existence on the planet, gives you just an extra dimension that isn't usually there.

Ms. MCCAMMON: Voorhies, the paleontologist, says it appears the two competitors were so well matched that neither one backed down. Standing over the twelve-foot-long wooden pallet that supports the giant fossil, Voorhies points to the tip of one mammoth's tusk which pokes into the eye socket of its opponent.

Mr. VOORHIES: These guys were not fooling around and there's the old adage in boxing that, you know, the bigger they are the harder they fall. You can just imagine two eight-ton animals sort of falling over and then not being able to get up.

Ms. MCCAMMON: Today the tusks and skulls lie on the wood floor of the large fourth-floor room where they're being prepared for public exhibition. Using a knife and brush a museum worker is scraping off layers of old yellow shellac, revealing the off-white surface beneath. Voorhies admits he'll be a little sad to see the mammoths go.

Mr. VOORHIES: We're standing in an area here that's, oh, I suppose a couple of hundred square feet and we've got these elephant bones all scattered out here. And in a few months those are gonna be gone.

Ms. MCCAMMON: The exhibit is scheduled to open at museum near Crawford, Nebraska in April, giving the public what scientists say is a rare glimpse of animal behavior preserved in the fossil record for 20,000 years. For NPR News I'm Sarah McCammon in Lincoln.

BRAND: It may be hard to believe, but mammoths aren't the ancestors of modern elephants; and you can find out other fun mammoth facts at our Web site, NPR.org.

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