Wonderful Life in a petri dish

By William O. Gifford

In the pursuit of science we are sometimes asked to do some rather bizarre things. Such is the case of my investigation into mastodon digesta. After the 1997 May/June field season, Matt Mihlbachler asked if I might be interested in helping with the analysis of the massive quantities of digesta we had recovered from the Page/ Ladson site.

My first day on the job, Matt set me up with a microscope, probe, tweezers and petri dish. After a few minutes of direction Matt left for a class. Fifteen minutes later a young lady came into Dr. Webb’s office asking for Matt. Saying that he had just left for class, I asked if there was anything that I might be able to help her with. She then identified herself as Dr. Lee Newsom, adding that Matt had been a former student of hers at Southern Illinois University. There I was on my first day, and who happens to drop by but the world’s leading, quite possibly the only, expert on mastodon digesta. As it turned out she was very helpful and suggested three textbooks that would help with my identification of the infinitesimal seeds contained in the digesta. Two weeks later and $150 lighter, I was ready to pursue my quest for the diet of mastodons. It wasn’t easy for them to maintain their physique, so I had plenty of material to study.

My first full day found me bent over my microscope furiously using my probe to push the thousands of twigs out of the way so that I could pick out the occasional seed with my tweezers. After an hour or so, I started feeling a little nauseous and questioned the wisdom of having eaten a sausage biscuit for breakfast. It suddenly dawned on me that it was not the biscuit causing my malady, but that I unwittingly had come across the cause of the extinction of the mastodon. It was then that I decided to go outside for some fresh air and get away from whatever nefarious virus had caused the mass extinction of countless megafauna from the Pleistocene epoch. After sitting down for few minutes my symptoms started to subside. I had not contracted a dread disease after all but instead had gotten a rather bad case of motion sickness from the twigs rapidly scurrying across my field of vision.

Six weeks later, I had amassed thousands of seeds. The fact that even en masse the vast majority of them were practically invisible to the naked eye did not daunt my pursuit, although it did cause some of my colleagues to ask what I had been doing all that time. It was shortly thereafter that I came upon a tiny mushroom. Sifting through massive quantities of digesta, I had never seen one. Needless to say, my excitement was running very high. I carefully took my tweezers and started to pick out the miniscule mycological wonder. As I slowly squeezed the tweezers together it squished into an unidentifiable piece of amorphous fungal material. Undaunted I continued looking for the next one, but over two years and countless hours of work, I have never seen another.

We had now reached a point in our study when Matt decided we needed to do some comparative dentition work to prove that what we had here was indeed from mastodons. This process entails measuring hundreds of twigs with a caliper and comparing them to the gaps between the crowns of the teeth. I declined adding yet another mind numbing task to the one I already had, and deferred to Matt’s vast knowledge of the subject matter.

I did, however, agree to pick up samples of llama and tapir digesta as I drove by sources of them on my way to the museum. One cool winter morning I drove by Reddick Bird and Animal Farm in Micanopy, a place with a substantial number of llamas. After explaining my quandry to Mrs. Reddick (and after her howls of laughter had subsided) she agreed to take me to her husband so that I could ask him. Shaking his head and mumbling something under his breath he told me to grab a shovel and took me out to the llama pens to get a sample. After bagging my still steaming sample I merrily made way on to the museum. We then contacted Silver Springs and found that they indeed had a tapir and would gladly help us in our endeavor.

So it was that on another cool morning Dr. Dave Reuther and I drove to the pen of Pedro the tapir. Entering the pen we started searching the ground for a sample. After half an hour we gave up, and he told me that he would have the animal handlers get me what I needed. Two days later I returned to the administrative offices and asked for my sample. They had no idea what I was talking about but promised that they would check into it, so I left my number at the museum and went on my way. Later that afternoon Dr. Webb informed me that I had a call from somebody demanding I come get my sample out of their office. They were not happy when I told them I could not be there before five o’clock but they agreed to stay late if I would just come get it. That was on a Thursday, and I was not scheduled to return to the museum until the following Tuesday. I placed the sample in my freezer but was called out of town on Sunday and threw it in my trunk. By the time I arrived at the museum things had warmed up quite a bit, and when I turned the sample over to Matt, well let’s just say it had become rather fragrant.

In one of the offbeat songs written by Steve Glover, he has a line that laments “archaeology ain’t pretty”, but as they say “beauty is in the eye (or nose as the case may be) of the beholder”.