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Blast from the past

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The term Ice Age may conjure thoughts of a cute animated movie starring talking animals, but the truth is, that period of time was real and those animals roamed around Indiana.

“A lot of times, particularly in Northern Indiana, while digging out recreational ponds, they’ll come across big bones. Then we get a call,” said Ronald Richards, senior research curator of paleobiology for the Indiana State Museum. “In the last 30 years, we’ve dug up about 15 sites.”

The abundance of large Ice Age mammal bones in addition to a previous exhibit at the museum that merely scratched the surface of the animals of that time period, prompted Richards to revisit the idea and devote a special exhibit to mastodons and mammoths that once roamed around the Hoosier state.

“Ice Age Giants: The Mystery of Mammoths and Mastodons” will be on display at the Indiana State Museum, part of the White River State Park, now through Aug. 17, 2014.

Richards said Indiana’s lush woodland and grassland terrain made it a prime habitat for Ice Age animals. Over time, researchers have found everything from a single tooth to an entire skeleton. There’s been so much evidence of mastodons and mammoths roaming Indiana, researchers began to call Indiana the “elephant graveyard.”

Richards and his team at the Indiana State Museum kept meticulous records of their large mammal finds and decided to put them on display. He added that in many traveling exhibits, viewers can find casts of bones but because mastodon and mammoth bones are so plentiful in Indiana, folks can see the real thing at the museum.

“In the exhibit, you’re going to actually see what it’s like at the moment of discovery. These farmers are out there and they’ve got their plows going, hit these bones, then the questions come. What have we found? Is it worth any money? Have we broken the law? You get a sense of what it’s like when someone finds something,” said Richards.

The exhibit then shifts to a timeline of when bones were found; what goes on in an archaeological dig; and how mammoths and mastodons compare to modern elephants. There’s also a segment called “secrets of the bones” where viewers are provided information (with real bones as examples) on the differences between a mastodon and a mammoth bone, teeth, gender and other indicators. Visitors can also see full scale mammoths and mastodons.

This exhibit is highly anticipated by those in the museum world. Discover Magazine did a special anticipatory feature on the exhibit highlighting Fred, the mastodon.

“More than 13,000 years ago, Fred was just another mastodon going about his business in what’s now Indiana. Things happen, as they do, and Fred ended up dead. Discovered in 1998 by a peat farmer, Fred’s well-preserved bones have advanced our understanding of the massive animals’ evolution. 

“Now, Fred lives on as a bone mount display at a new exhibit showcasing the mega fauna of Indiana’s Pleistocene past. Interactive activities transport visitors to a pre-Hoosier world rich with the tusked giants.”

Richard said Hoosiers are excited too.

“Before we did this we did some testing and people really liked this idea,” said Richards. “This is a place where there were lots of bones. It’s neat to be able to look at the remains and decipher what was going on here in Indiana.”

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