June 27, 2019 — The smallest items owned by the North Dakota Heritage Center in Bismarck are samples of pollen grains that are from 10 to 12 thousand years old.

The reconstructed skeleton of an elephant-like Highgate mastodon greets visitors inside the Center’s Museum. While studying it, paleontologist John Hoganson discovered a cavity in a breastbone that still held some dirt from the pond that entombed the animal. Tests revealed more than 200 grains of pollen that indicated the mastodon probably foraged in a boreal forest with some grassy areas.

Pollen from trees included one tamarack, four birch, three ash, 18 oak, one elm, three ironwood, one butternut and one hickory. In contrast, there were 156 grains of spruce pollen. In his botanical report, John McAndrews, curator at the Royal Ontario Museum, wrote, “No vertebrate today eats spruce and thus the extinction of mastodon has left an unoccupied ecological niche.”

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org, or subscribe to the “Dakota Datebook” podcast.

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