Southern Indiana

The mastodon is finally getting recognition in Indiana, more than 10,000 years after it became extinct.

House Bill 1013 designates the mastodon as the official state fossil. Leaders from both legislative chambers signed the proposal last week and it now goes to the governor’s desk for final approval.

“[Young people] may see something, like in Jurassic Park, a T. Rex or something. Those didn’t live around here,” said state Rep. Randy Frye, a Republican from Greensburg who authored the legislation. “But mastodons did. They were right here, right where we are. It’s designed to stimulate the young mind to start digging, if you will, into science and trying to determine what was here before us.”

Thousands of years ago, mastodon herds roamed throughout the state. Despite its intimidating appearance, the ancient beast, which looks similar to the woolly mammoth, feasted exclusively on plants. 

Stanley Totten, a retired geology professor who worked at Hanover College for 60 years, said mastodon fossils have been found at more than 150 different sites in Indiana. One of the most recent discoveries in Southern Indiana happened in Seymour in 2019.

“The mastodon is the most abundant state fossil from the ice age,” Totten said. “Most of the mastodon fossils date from about 11,000 to 13,000 years before present. Most of them are found in bog-like depressions in northern Indiana, but the mastodon is found in almost every county in Indiana.”

Prior to the mastodon bill’s passage, Indiana was one of only five states without an official state fossil. But it wasn’t the state’s first attempt to establish one. Lawmakers in previous sessions proposed the crinoid, a small marine creature.

Totten, who suggested the bill to Frye and testified to state lawmakers on its behalf, said those efforts might have failed because of the crinoid’s underwhelming appearance.

“Indiana is noted for its fossils, but these are tiny marine organisms that don’t get a lot of attention as far as being educational tools,” Totten said. “It’s the dinosaurs that capture their attention. And the mastodons, of course, fit into that as sort of Indiana’s version of the dinosaur, even though it isn’t one. The mastodon makes a statement.”

The Hanover College Science Center, where Totten still works, has multiple mastodon fossils on display, including one from a dig in Auburn, Ind. Its most impressive piece is “Sandy,” a life-size cast of the “Burning Tree Mastodon.” The original fossil, discovered in Ohio, is one the most intact mastodon remains ever found. It even had live bacteria in its digestive system.

The Indiana State Museum boasts a large fossil collection that includes “Fred,” one of the most complete mastodons discovered in Indiana, and remnants from the Seymour dig.

Peggy Fisherkeller, the museum’s curator of geology, said she hopes the official fossil designation will spark interest in the state’s natural history.

“I do love the concept that you can make discoveries right where you are,” she said. “It’s fun to travel. It’s fun to think about exotic things and exotic places, but we have so many discoveries to make right here. It’s worth it to stick around and look at what we’ve got.”

Others hope that interest will grow into a deeper appreciation for natural ecological cycles and how they change over time.

“You wonder what that means for the past and the future of the planet,” Steve Steiner, the director of the Hanover College Science Center, said. “We get into thinking about things like global warming and climate change and how the Earth has changed quite a bit over the past millennia: how it’s likely to change in the future and wondering what’s man’s role in that.”

Supporters of the mastodon legislation hope to have a bill signing ceremony at Hanover later this year. The law will take effect on July 1.

John Boyle is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms. John’s coverage of Southern Indiana is funded, in part, by the Caesars Foundation of Floyd County, Community Foundation of Southern Indiana and Samtec, Inc.

John Boyle is a reporter and editor at WFPL news focused on Southern Indiana. He is a corps member with Report For America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.