Seth Colling's keen eye brought a crowd of researchers, teachers, grad students, volunteers and TV cameras to the banks of an unnamed creek near Mayville in Michigan's Thumb on Saturday.
"My whole life, I've looked at the ground and I've picked up interesting stuff," said Colling, a farmer and part-time teacher at the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning, a year-round camp for children and adults with special needs.
In 2014, Colling picked up a mastodon bone in the creek. On Saturday, University of Michigan paleontologists and grad students, along with teachers from Thumb-area schools, were unearthing more of the male mastodon that about 11,000 years ago met an untimely end — perhaps with the assistance of Ice Age humans.
Colling was on his knees at the site on the Fowler Center property, uncovering with trowel and bare hands another large leg bone, oblivious to the sticky mud he was covering himself with. He was so locked in that organizers had to call him several times before he put down his trowel for lunch.
"For me, it was a dream come true," he said about finding the mastodon bones.
Mastodons are extinct relatives of modern elephants. They roamed Michigan 14,000 to 10,000 years ago, after the glaciers had pulled back from the Lower Peninsula. Daniel Fisher, professor of paleontology and director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, said mastodons were browsers, feeding on leaves, twigs, berries and such. Their more familiar cousins, mammoths, were grazers, feeding more on grasses.
Fisher directed Saturday's dig. The team will return to the site, where the unnamed creek has washed away the outside of a bend, on Sunday and again Oct. 15-16.
Colling said he and his students were looking for fish in the creek when they found the bones.
"I saw the right tibia laying in the water," he said. "I thought it was a weird piece of firewood. I said, 'What is that?' and one of my students jumped in and pulled it out."
He said the student also pulled a vertebra from the weedy water.
Since then, paleontologists have collected more pieces of the mastodon that have eroded out of the creek bank.
Abigail Chapman, a science teacher at Caro High School, was one of the nine Tuscola County teachers who rolled up their sleeves and risked their shoes in the sticky mud Saturday. She said she jumped at the chance.
"(Friday) we got a lot of information about mastodons," she said. "I can't wait to learn more and share it with my students."
She said she set up an Instagram account for her students so they could share the experience.
Fisher said there have been about 300 known mastodons discovered in Michigan — most comprising a few bones and teeth. He said it's rare to find a nearly complete specimen such as the one at the Fowler Center.
"We've already got more at this site than most of these other sites give us," he said.
Fisher also said the site is unique because the bones are still in the ground; paleontologists usually aren't called in until someone notices bones or teeth sticking out of a spoils pile at an excavation for a structure or road.
The bones, Fisher said, tell researchers the male mastodon was probably in his mid-30s, not yet fully grown.
"This animal is sexually mature," Fisher said. "He's kicked out of the matriarchal family and is on his own, living a solitary life.
"As such, he is more vulnerable to predation."
Fisher said researchers had not found definitive evidence the predators might have been early humans, but the site fits a pattern of people storing large quantities of meat in natural refrigerators such as ponds and marshes.
The bones, he said, don't appear to be from an animal that died of natural causes.
"It's what you get if the butcher, instead of separating it out and packaging it out by anatomy, just threw it in a pile," he said.
Kyle Middleton, executive director of the Fowler Center, said the center is donating the material found at the dig to the University of Michigan.
"It's an unbelievable opportunity for the Fowler Center to offer this to the community," she said.
Colling, who started all the activity when he spotted that "weird piece of firewood," said he was grateful his students could make a contribution to science.
"Really, the best part is we have kids who have been disadvantaged who can be part of something that most people never experience," he said.