The Mastodon Could Become the State Fossil, But Is It “Indiana” Enough?

February 12, 2022

Throughout the years, the state of Indiana has approved many official symbols that showcase Hoosier life and traditions.

Some are adopted uniquely by the state -- the non-native but long-living peony is the state flower; the durable Salem limestone, also known as Indiana Limestone, is the state stone; the brilliantly glowing Say’s firefly is the state insect.

The state even adopted a state firearm, the Grouseland Rifle.

Indiana shares other state symbols, like its state bird and state tree. The cardinal is the state bird for six other states, and the tulip tree is also the state tree for Indiana’s southern neighbor, Kentucky.

But whether the symbols are just an “Indiana thing” or shared with a region, the selected symbols offer an opportunity to teach about what life is like in the Hoosier State.

State lawmakers are a vote away from expanding the list of state symbols by designating an Ice Age mammal related to modern day elephants as the state’s first official fossil.

Lawmakers want the mastodon, a distant relative of the elephant that lived during the Ice Age, to become the official state fossil. Photo: Hanover College

House Engrossed Bill 1013, sponsored by Rep. Randy Frye, would designate the American mastodon as the state fossil. The bill passed the Indiana House of Representatives unanimously and will soon face a vote in the Indiana Senate.

But debate exists about whether the state should push ahead with the mastodon, which is already the state fossil of Michigan, or choose a fossil with a more unique relationship with the state.

Frye said he was inspired to write the bill after a visit to Hanover College, in Jefferson County. The school recently installed a life-size cast of the world’s most complete mastodon skeleton, found in 1989 by a crew excavating a pond for a golf course in central Ohio.

He said retired geology professor Stanley Totten convinced him to push for making the mastodon the state fossil after telling him about the extinct animal’s prevalence in the state and the Midwest.

“Indiana is one of five states without a state fossil, so it's time to fill that void,” Totten told the House Committee on Natural Resources. “Mastodons have been found in nearly every county in Indiana. Mastodons roamed Indiana starting about two and a half million years ago, and they became extinct about 10,500 years ago. They're the most common Ice Age fossil found in Indiana, and every time you dig a hole in your backyard, you might find one. So, it's very abundant, very common.”

Mastodon fossils, like this one named "Fred" that is displayed in the Indiana State Museum, are commonly found throughout the state.

Most recently, crews working on a sewer system in Seymour, Indiana in 2019 found two mastodon limb bones and parts of a skull and tusk. The bones were donated to the Indiana State Museum, which dubbed the mastodon “Alfred.”

Museum curators in 2005 unearthed the fossils of seven mastodons and other creatures at a dig site near Hebron, Indiana.

Another mastodon in the museum’s care, named “Fred,” was found at a property outside Fort Wayne in 1998 by a crew mining for peat.

Totten said mastodons are so common in the U.S., its scientific name, Mammut Americanum, reflects that fact.

The bill has faced little opposition in the Indiana Legislature, but some science groups have wondered whether a more Indiana-specific fossil should have the honor of being the state fossil.

“[The mastodon is] a really good candidate, because there's a lot of them around. That definitely would help people connect to ideas about extinction and climate change and the idea that the natural world around them changes,” said P. David Polly, a vertebrate paleontologist and chair of the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at Indiana University. “So, in that sense, I certainly couldn't object to it. If I was going to find anything disappointing about it, it is that mastodons are found all over. So, it's not particularly unique to Indiana in any way.”

Polly, in 2012, helped a group of citizen scientists and other science organizations in the state select the fossil of an ancient marine animal discovered in Indiana, called a crinoid, to present to the Indiana Legislature for state fossil consideration.

Crinoids are related to star fish, sea urchins and sea cucumbers and lived in what is now Indiana about 350 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era, when the bedrock of Indiana was formed. Crinoids are found in every bedrock unit in Indiana, including the state stone, Salem Limestone.

Crinoids, like the elegant sea lily lived about 350 million years ago. Its fossil was discovered in Crawfordsville in 1865.

Nearly 100 species of crinoids have been discovered in the Crawfordsville area, the first of which was unearthed at Sugar Creek in 1842 by the 9-year-old son of a Wabash College professor. The discovery set off a fossil rush that supplied museums and collectors around the world and made the state famous in the world of paleontology.

“Crawfordsville, Indiana was known from really early after European settlement, and maybe even before that in a Native American tradition, as a place where there are just spectacular crinoid fossils,” said Polly. “In the 19th century, there was a lot of crinoid collecting there that was commissioned or purchased by museums around the world. So, you can go into natural history museums in London or Moscow or Beijing or someplace and find Crawfordsville crinoids.”

The groups selected the fossil of a crinoid known as the elegant sea lily as their candidate for state fossil, and, in 2015, Sens. Phil Boots and Mark Stoops sponsored a bill to make it happen.

The bill died in committee, potentially because the bill listed the crinoid by its scientific name, Elegantocrinus hemisphaericus. The language may have conflicted with another state symbol, the official state language, English.

The mastodon will most likely have the legislative backing to become the state fossil, but Polly said he thinks the Indiana Legislature should consider a surprising fossil alternative that was discovered in Indiana – the dire wolf.

The dire wolf, an Ice Age canine, was about 20% larger than gray wolves. The first fossil of a dire wolf was discovered near Evansville in 1854.

The dire wolf was recently made famous by the HBO series Game of Thrones and the book series that inspired it. Dire wolves were the mythical and partially magical animals that become the pets of the hard luck children of House Stark, one of the factions in the series’ universe. The family also used the dire wolf as its sigil.

The “Dire Wolf” is also the title of a catchy Grateful Dead song from 1970, in which a man living in the wilderness fearfully plays a game of cards with a grinning dire wolf.

Those versions are fantasy, but the real animal on which they were based was discovered near Evansville in 1854.

Dire wolves have been found at sites in Evansville and Monroe and Crawford counties.

The dire wolf is an extinct type of rare canine about 20% larger than the gray wolves that lived around the same time as the mastodon. Dire wolves were believed to travel in packs and hunt down ancient horses, bison and even small mastodons.

Dire wolf fossils have been found at sites in Evansville and Monroe and Crawford counties.

“I think most people think that they're fictional animals, but they're really an extinct species,” said Polly. “And virtually nobody knows that they were first discovered Indiana. Even paleontologists. If you ask the average paleontologist where the dire wolf was first discovered, I suspect that very few would realize it was in Indiana.”

HB1013 has gone through two readings in the Indiana Senate, which could vote to make the mastodon the state fossil in upcoming Senate sessions. The bill would then have to be approved by Gov. Eric Holcomb to make the designation official.

The Mastodon Could Become the State Fossil, But Is It “Indiana” Enough?