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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Mastodons in Lake County

The earliest known discovery of mastodon bones in Lake County occurred in January 1876, as reported by the Waukegan Weekly Gazette: "One morning Mr. M.B. Stone, while digging sand in the pit south of the town branch on Lamar [?] Street, struck with a pick what he supposed to be a stone, but on prying it out found it to be a portion of some mammoth." 

Image of Mastodons courtesy of
American Museum of Natural History

The use of the term "mammoth" by the Gazette may have been simply to signify something quite large, but it should be noted that although similar in appearance, mastodons and mammoths are two distinct species. The most important difference was how they ate. Both were herbivores, but mastodons had cone-shaped cusps on their molars to crush leaves, twigs and branches. Mammoths had ridged molars that allowed them to cut through vegetation and graze.

Mastodons began to disappear from Lake County at the end of the last Ice Age from 10,000 to 12,000 years ago. Some scientists believe the herds of American mastodon were possibly greater than the bison herds that later roamed the Great Plains. The mastodon’s extinction was probably caused by several factors, including over-hunting by humans, climate change and habitat loss at the end of the Ice Age, and possibly disease.

The most exciting discovery of a mastodon occurred in the summer of 1925. While dredging a canal on his property in Ingleside, Herman Kaping (1870-1932) brought up the ribs and bones of a mastodon. The skull was also found and hoisted several times, but each time slipped off the dredge's bucket back into the water. 
Herman Kaping's resort, Ingleside, near where the
mastodon bones were found.
Postcard circa 1912. LCDM M-86.1.361
The discovery caught the interest of scientists when Kaping sent the 56" rib bone and 10" long vertebra to the Field Museum for identification, and later gifted the bones to the Field. Soon the Field Museum's Professor Elmer S. Riggs (1869-1963), associate curator of paleontology, and Dr. H.W. Nichols, associate curator of geology, arrived to search for more bones.

Herman Kaping (left) and Prof. Riggs of the Field Museum
at site of Mastodon find in Ingleside, 1925.
Professor Riggs was a specialist of fossil mammals, but had been working for the Field Museum in part to secure dinosaurs for exhibition. Riggs is credited with discovering and naming the Brachiosaurus in 1903. 

Riggs and Nichols were unable to recover more bones, but Riggs gave an impromptu talk on the size and habits of the mastodon to a crowd of onlookers.

On March 11, 1962, another attempt was made to recover the mastodon skull at Kaping's. The site had come to be known as "Mastodon Isle" for the 1925 find.

Examining a mastodon bone: Ken Bundy (diver),
William Palmer, Harry Kaping and Charles Dussman.
News-Sun, March 13, 1962. 
This time the hunt was led by Robert Vogel of the Lake County Museum of History (predecessor to the Lake County Discovery Museum), and Herman Kaping's son, Harry Kaping (1894-1975). Harry had rode the dredging machine when the original find was made.

Robert Vogel (center with paper) discusses the plan
for finding more mastodon bones at Mastodon Isle.
Property owner, Harry Kaping (right wearing fedora)
March 11, 1962. LCDM photo. 
Members of the Lake County Scuba Divers cut two four-foot holes in the ice, 200 feet apart. Harry Kaping directed the divers in their search, but they were unable to locate the mastodon's skull.

Mastodon leg bone recovered in 1925 from Kaping's (above)
was donated to Vogel's museum. It is on permanent exhibit
at the Lake County Discovery Museum.
In July 1992, mastodon bones were discovered in Wadsworth. While digging a lake on their property, Van Zelst, Inc. Landscapers excavated mastodon bones, eastern elk bones and remnants of an ancient spruce forest. The find was identified by scientists from the Illinois State Museum, where the majority of the find was donated. One of the spruce logs was donated to and is on exhibit at the Lake County Discovery Museum.

Dr. Russell Graham of the Illinois State Museum
and David Van Zelst, landscape architect and owner of
property examine mastodon bones found while
Van Zelst was digging in Wadsworth, 1992.
Courtesy of David Van Zelst. 

Mastodon statue and prairie flowers representing
Lake County's historic flora and fauna greet visitors
to the Lake County Discovery Museum.

1 comment:

Melissa (Libertyville) said...

I recall that the Lodge at Illinois State Beach Park used to have a wonderful display of fossils. I wonder if it's still there? My family and I went to the beach almost every day in the summer and found some fossils of our own!