The Jefferson Fossil Collection (Yes, THAT Jefferson…)

4 07 2009

Good tidings & well-wishes and, for all of my American readers, happy fourth of July!

I’ve always enjoyed reading about the American founding fathers (however, I’m certainly not the sort of person to canonize them) and the political environment which led to the birth of our nation. It therefore comes as no surprise that I devoured Paul Semonin’s excellent book entitled “American Monster: How The Nation’s First Prehistoric Creature Became A Symbol Of National Identity” and its accompanying website as soon as I was able to do so. Both chronicle the effects of early American paleontology (which chiefly concerned Mammut americanum and Megalonyx sp.) 0n several of the emerging country’s most influential revolutionaries such as George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. However, of these men, none were so smitten by paleontology than the author of “The Declaration Of Independence” himself and the man to whom this pyrotechnic holiday primarily owes its conception, Thomas Jefferson.

Jefferson famously asked Louis and Clark to be on the lookout for living mastodons at the onset of their journey (which was obviously a fruitless search, though they did manage to find a host of fossils from various beasts) and even stored several remains of these mysterious animals in the White House itself during his presidency.

The historic Academy of Natural Sciences has compiled a comprehensive and very readable guide to Jefferson’s paleontological collections and endeavors. What better way for a paleo-enthusiast to spend the fourth than reading up on something that’s both patriotic and paleontological? It beats shooting fireworks in my humble opinion (and it costs a lot less)…

May the fossil record (and those who’ve studied it) continue to enchant us all!




2 responses

5 07 2009
Brian Beatty

There was a great paper on NY mastodons in Evolution Education & Outreach last year at:
Also, the vertpaleo listserv just had mention of the original site of the mastodon find (the one with the water wheel in the famous painting) is going to be a protected site with a visitor center in Orange County, NY. I cannot wait to take my kids there.
Also, not far from Sleepy Hollow there is Henry Fairfield Osborn’s old family home, and in Garrison, NY just nearby is his grave. A colleague of mine at NYCOM visited and he and his son put a toy Tyrannosaurus by his grave (Osborn named T. rex). I find it weird that more paleontologists don’t find this interesting considering how T rex was the single most popular single taxon as a subject of abstracts submitted to SVP last year – and most numerous of taxa (including large clades like mammals) to have abstracts rejected. Poor Tyrannosaurus, it is just an animal like any other, but suffers the pains and shames of popularity, like the late MJ

5 07 2009

I’ve noticed that the American mastodon has essentially become a mascot for vertebrate paleo across the state and has accordingly obtained a huge amount of attention from a myriad of institutions within its borders (which certainly isn’t a bad thing). I’ll definitely want to see this Orange county site, especially after viewing the aforementioned painting innumerable times myself.

I shall also have to visit Osborn’s grave someday, given the man’s invaluable contributions to North American paleontology. As for T. rex, while it’s a very interesting creature, I’ll concede that it does, as you say, “suffer the pains and shames of popularity” and is therefore subjected to a grossly disproportionate amount of research and energy by both the public and academia. Dozens of other animals are just as fascinating (if not moreso), but, sadly, they’re simply not as iconic and, in consequence, are neglected.

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