Heart of Louisiana: Mastodon

Tens of thousands of years ago, the landscape of Louisiana was drastically different.
Published: Mar. 26, 2023 at 5:13 PM CDT|Updated: Mar. 26, 2023 at 11:16 PM CDT

BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - It may be hard to imagine a time when giant elephant-like animals were roaming the prairies of southern Louisiana but the bones of mastodons and other long-extinct animals are turning up in coastal areas.

Tens of thousands of years ago, the landscape of Louisiana was drastically different.

“The water was tied up in the glaciers so the oceans are about 3 to 400 feet lower than they are today, this would’ve been a high prairie area or marshy prairie area,” Mike Richard said.

With the ice-age environment came megafauna, large animals, many of them now extinct.

“Giant horned bison, camels, ground sloths that weighed over 3000 pounds. They had tortoises that were the size of Volkswagens,” said Richard.

Mike Richard owns Rip Van Winkle Gardens on Jefferson Island, which sits on top of one of Louisiana’s coastal salt domes.

It was a near catastrophe here on Lake Peigneur that led to the discovery of the first bones in 1980. It happened when a drilling rig out on the lake punched a hole in an underground salt mine.

“All the water from the ground, from the lake, started running down into this borehole and quickly enlarged it to the point where billions of gallons of water were sucked into the mine,” said Richard.

For ten hours the land collapsed as the lake was sucked dry. When the large crater filled again with water, the upheaval along the shoreline revealed long-buried skeletons. Richard first noticed what he thought was a rock jutting from an embankment. His ten-year-old son retrieved it.

“And when he picked it up he said daddy, it’s not a rock, it’s a tooth. We found a piece of the jawbone where the root socketed into the jawbone,” Richard said.

The giant molar came from the mouth of a mastodon, an animal that’s been extinct for 10,000 years.

“Well, mastodons are similar to an elephant. Here’s a tusk that was into pieces and it’s interesting that the working end of the tusk is convexed and it’s obvious they were used as a tool for uprooting plants,” Richard said.

This is the jawbone and teeth of a tapir, a hog-like animal. These teeth come from a large ancient species of horse. When Richard was deeping this pond, he found more bones from another mastodon.

“This large tusk measures almost 9 inches in diameter and originally was in excess of 6 feet long. They were just laying buried in the ground for the last 30,000 years at least,” Richard said.

Most of these animals disappeared from coastal Louisiana as the planet warmed. But today, if you dig in the right place, you might just find a buried piece of prehistoric treasure.

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