KU paleontologists say kayakers made jaw-dropping discovery

Ancient mastodon bones uncovered

? Four kayakers put in at Clinton Lake last week for a 25-mile trip down the Wakarusa River.

It was one of many river trips Garry Bichelmeyer and his brother, Mark Bichelmeyer, have made.

But the Aug. 16 trip turned uncommon in that, by day’s end, their kayaks were loaded with the upper jawbone and four intact molars of an American mastodon, as well as pieces of the skull.

From the river they telephoned Larry Martin, professor of paleontology at Kansas University and curator of vertebrate paleontology at the KU Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center.

Tuesday morning, the brothers showed the fossilized bones to Martin and his staff.

“It’s the best I’ve seen in Kansas,” said Martin, who has been on the KU faculty since 1972.

Martin estimated the bones at 10,000 to 20,000 years old, but said a carbon dating would give a better indication.

A Tonganoxie man, Garry Bichelmeyer, left, and three relatives found on the Wakarusa River what Kansas University researchers believe are pieces of an American mastodon, which roamed the area 10,000 to 20,000 years ago. In the photo above, which was taken by Mike Billups of Shawnee, Garry Bichelmeyer is shown with Mark Bichelmeyer and Kyler Mogusar and their fossilized mastodon jaw. Garry Bichelmeyer discovered the fossil last week while the four were on a kayak trip.

“It looks to me like it’s nearly a complete skull,” Martin said. “It’s in a lot of pieces, but I think it would go together to make more of the skull. That’s kind of unusual – for instance, the museum doesn’t have a mastodon skull, we just have parts – so it’s unusual in its completeness.”

Martin said he’d like to learn more about that particular mastodon’s environment.

“We might try to extract pollen from the inside of the skull and use that to figure out what the kinds of plants were there,” Martin said.

And, he said, it would be a good idea to do research at the site.

“It’s an important site that needs to be checked out,” Martin said. “I think we’d be lucky if there were anything else there, but I think there’s a chance. It’s certainly worth a check.”

Garry, of Tonganoxie, said he and his brother would revisit the site later this week with anthropologists from KU.

“If we can find it again,” Garry said, smiling. He noted he had a general idea of where the fossils were found. “I think we can find it. One of the anthropologists has a GPS system so he can mark the site.”

Kenny Bader, a KU graduate student in vertebrate paleontology, plans to go along.

What’s a mastodon?

American mastodons were large, prehistoric animals that resembled the woolly mammoth. Mastodons died out about 9,000 years ago.

“That’s actually the first mastodon skull I had seen,” Bader said. “Usually in Kansas, people pull out mammoths, so it’s definitely something unique.”

Apparently, the mastodon skull was the talk of the day in Dyche Hall, which houses KU’s Museum of Natural History.

“We don’t often get exciting finds brought in,” Bader said. “Occasionally, people will bring in a few small bones off the river, but we almost never have something that big coming in.”

‘We know bones’

Accompanying the Bichelmeyer brothers on last week’s kayak trip were their cousin Mike Billups, of Shawnee, and Garry’s 15-year-old grandson, Kyler Mogusar, of Rapid River, Mich.

Kyler Mogusar, Rapid River, Mich., paddles his kayak on the Wakarusa River with the fossilized upper jawbone of an American mastodon. A Tonganoxie man, Garry Bichelmeyer, and three relatives discovered the jawbone and pieces of skull, which a Kansas University professor estimates are 10,000 to 20,000 years old.

“I saw something sticking out of the water,” Garry said. “It looked like a stump.”

But as he kept eyeing the object, he realized it wasn’t a tree stump but a large bone. Garry, 58, and Mark, 48, are both meat cutters.

“We know bones,” Garry said.

Garry pointed it out to Mark, who was in another kayak behind him.

All four kayakers stopped to take a look.

“The water was pretty low; that’s probably why we found it,” said Mark, who lives in De Soto. “We pulled it over and sure enough, it was a bone. I started trying to dig it out of the water.”

Mark’s shovel was his kayak paddle.

The men soon realized they were looking at the top side of an upper jaw of what was likely a prehistoric animal. It certainly wasn’t a horse or cow. Each half of the upper jaw was about the length of his arm.

“Garry kept saying, ‘If there are teeth in there, that’s really something,'” Mark said.

The bone was partially buried in mud.

“It was pretty heavy,” Mark said. “I finally pulled it up and I seen those big teeth. We got all excited and everything – it was a good time.”

The teeth were huge. Bichelmeyer said each of the four teeth was twice the size of one of his fists.

After they removed the upper jaw and palate – in once piece – they continued the impromptu dig, which took place in muddy water that was 2 feet deep.

“And then there were more pieces,” Mark said. “I kept going through the water and pulling out all the other pieces.”

Even then, in the midst of a river, the men realized that if the bones could be put together, they’d have the entire top of the head of a prehistoric animal.

It took about an hour to dig up the bones, load them in their kayaks and head on along the river. They arrived at their destination around 8 p.m., tired but exhilarated about their discovery.

A couple days later, after the bones had been set out to dry, the men realized the teeth were in good condition.

“The enamel on the teeth is shiny,” Garry said.

Garry and Mark said they didn’t know what they would do with their find. They know if they sell it, the four will split the proceeds.

Chancellor’s find

During their first telephone conversation, Garry, who lives in Tonganoxie, told professor Martin the pieces of the skull were filled with large air cavities.

Martin said that’s indicative of mammoths and mastodons, or elephant skulls in general. It’s thought the creatures last roamed Kansas about 10,000 years ago.

“The brain is big, but about the size of a soccer ball,” Martin said, noting the skull is filled with air pockets.

That’s part of the reason why the heads tend to be found with no trace of the rest of their bodies.

“The animal dies, the flesh rots off, the skull dries out,” Martin said. “The skull will get washed into a river and it will float. It gets away from the rest of the skeleton.”

And generally, he said, as the skull floats around the teeth drop out.

It’s not unheard of to find fossils in the Wakarusa River. An early discovery took place in the late 1800s, Martin said.

“One of the very first fossils that we ever found was an elephant bone out of the Wakarusa River,” Martin said. “Francis Huntington Snow, KU’s fifth chancellor, was out fishing on the Wakarusa River. He was standing on a rock.”

But Snow, who came to KU in 1866 as a professor of mathematics and natural science, soon observed it wasn’t a rock on which he was standing – but the lower jaw of a mastodon.