West MI of old: Mastodons, wild boars, 5-foot beavers

Mastodon bones were discovered at a Byron Township farm on Sept. 13, 2017.


GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The mastodon recently unearthed by construction crews in Byron Center had some interesting prehistoric company when it roamed West Michigan more than 12,000 years ago.

“I guess I mostly think about the overall picture of what life would have been like back here, between 10,000 years ago and 14,000 years ago,” said Calvin College Professor Ralph Stearley, a paleontologist who was excited to learn about the discovery.

“Trying to imagine a landscape with these creatures walking around on it, and maybe some early human hunters that would have been feasting on these things, enjoying mastodon steaks for dinner.”

Mastodons, mammoths and other prehistoric creatures likely moved into Michigan after ice withdrew 12,000 to 14,000 years ago, Stearley said.

“We had abundant woodland musk oxen down here in southwest lower Michigan. The giant beaver was present; there was an elk-like creature they call the moose elk. It stood about this tall,” he said, reaching over his head.

Not to mention chest-high wild bores called peccaries.

And, those giant beavers?

“It would stand about this tall if it stood up on its hind legs,” Stearley said, raising an arm to about his shoulders.

The recent mastodon discovery in Byron Center wasn’t rare.

A crew working on a new subdivision just north of 84th Street SW near Kent Trail unearthed more than two dozen mastodon bones. They include what appeared to be a jaw bone.

A University of Michigan research assistant said they appeared to come from a female.

“In Michigan, we have a lot,” said Stearley, the professor at Calvin. “We have a couple hundred fossil mastodons and mammoths if you add them all up together. And the vast majority are mastodons.”

That includes the mastodon found on the property of Ada Bible Church, excavated by Professor Stearley and students in 1999 — some of it now under glass in a Calvin College hallway.

“This is the last molar,” he said, pointing to a tooth about the size of a brick. “This is an adult, we think it’s a male, based on the size of the tusks, so it’s an adult bull male probably in its late 40s or early 50s.”

There’s some ribs, a neck bone, a knee cap, a crumbling ivory tusk that reached 8 feet long.

It probably stood almost ceiling high and weighed up to four tons, he said.

“You have to imagine a bulky, tank-like creature with a flat profile across the back,” he said.

Mastodons fed on willow and conifer branches, while their larger counterparts, the mammoths, grazed on grasses, Stearley said.

Scientist believe they were doomed by climate change and spear-wielding hunters .

“By 10,000 or 11,000 years ago, they were off the landscape here and in most of the lower states,” Stearley said.