When Sandy MacLeod and Lawrence MacNeil left home for work at the Little Narrows Gypsum mine in April 2014, they didn’t imagine that the glacial muds at the mine site were to reveal to them a secret kept since the Pleistocene ‘Ice Age’. All the more remarkable then that sharp-eyed Lawrence would spy a huge limb-bone protruding from the rubble after a routine blast. The bones proved to be those of a mastodon, an ancestral cousin of elephants that once browsed the spruce forests and bogs of North America.
Sandy MacLeod (left) and Lawrence MacNeil (right) with the mastodon bones that they discovered at Little Narrows Gypsum. The company has been model stewards of the discovery, making equipment and personnel available for the recovery work.
This particular animal died by falling into a sinkhole. Sinkholes form where gypsum dissolves and collapses into a pit. The hole the mastodon fell into was hidden beneath a boggy wetland that tempted the great beast to browse spruce twigs and other delicacies. Once mired in the deep bog hole, the mastodon’s fate was sealed. Los Angeles has the La Brea tar pits. Cape Breton (and many other places, including Milford) had its gypsum sinkholes.
There have been only a half-dozen discoveries of mastodons in the Maritimes. Two virtually complete skeletons have been found: one at Hillsborough, NB in 1936 (now proudly on display in the New Brunswick Museum in Saint John) and another found at Milford, NS in 1991 (a reconstruction of which proudly stands by the Tim’s at Mastodon Ridge on the Trans Canada at Stewiacke). Brick-sized molars have been dragged up by fishermen on the Grand Banks as well (during the Ice Ages that came and went from 10,000 to 3 million years ago, so much of the earth’s water was frozen in glaciers and ice caps that sea levels at times were tens of metres lower than today, exposing areas now under the sea).
There are two schools of thought as to how the mastodons fell into extinction around 10,000 years ago: one is that they were hunted into oblivion by humans, the other is that they succumbed to rapid climate change as ice caps rapidly melted across the northern hemisphere. Or maybe both. Perhaps it’s a call-out from the past that humans and climate change are still at it.
A team from the Department of Natural Resources and the Nova Scotia Museum has continued the search at Little Narrows. It is uncovering still more bones by sifting through several tonnes of material that the gypsum company carefully set aside. The bones that have been found are being carefully cleaned and conserved at the Nova Scotia Museum where they will be available for future study. Bits of bone, together with twigs and branches found buried with them, will be sent for carbon-14 dating to tell us just when the mastodon met its end. In the meantime, Sandy and Lawrence and company will be keeping their eyes peeled for more sinkholes and their secrets.
Fancy name: Mammut americanus