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Welcome to the Mastodon Project!

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Welcome to the Mastodon Project!
Let me begin by saying: I don’t know what’s in your bag. This is a scientific research project – not an educational activity. I hope you and your class learn something, and that you enjoy the research, but it is not my primary mission to “teach” you anything. Of course, I’d love to know what you learn, as well as what you find.

The only requirements to participate are that you be a careful and observant researcher, and that you return the fossils you find and one “data sheet.” I will summarize all the data sheets and report back to you. I’ll include a collection of fossils with my report as a thank-you for your participation.

I’ve included some instructions. In short, we need to sort organic (once-living) from inorganic (never-living) things; to weight the different categories we find, and to return the organics and any unusual rocks. If you would like further instructions, visit our web page at: or contact me at: 607-255-1010; 1160 Snee Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York 14853;

Some people have asked if they can contribute to the project. Yes, contributions are welcome, but are not necessary. Contributions are tax-deductible and can be made to Cornell University/Mastodon Project.

Thanks for your help.
John Chiment


You have received a 5 pound bag of “matrix” from a mastodon site in Chemung County, New York. Everything in the bag is at least 12,000 years old. Some of the twigs and leaves look very recent. They have been very well preserved by being sealed in acidic compost pile for 12,150 years. We’ve found that 5 pounds will keep 25 to 30 students busy for 2 or 3 sessions of about 30 minutes each.
Session #1: You will need some old newspapers, paper plates, and a scale. It does not matter if your scale records pounds or kilograms, but please tell us the unit you are using.

  1. For each group of 3-5 students, push some desks or tables together and cover with newspaper.

  2. Give each group about 1 pound of matrix. Ask them to sort into 3 piles.

    1. Wood and cones and leaves

    2. Rocks

    3. Everything else

  3. Examine the wood, cones, and leaves. Many of the twigs are about the same length. Many are crushed on one end and broken on the other. We think mastodons ate spruce twigs this way – grabbing the short, green twig, and breaking it off. Each twig in your pile was held and eaten by a mastodon. What you have has passed through the stomach and intestines of a mastodon.

  4. Collect the wood, cones, and leaves from each group and put it in one of the labeled bags to return to Cornell. you may want to bag up b and c, or continue

Session #2: You will need some water to wash rocks and towels to let them dry.

  1. Separate the rocks into 4 piles:

B1 – Big, gray rocks (“Big” means larger than a 25¢ piece.)

B2 – Little gray rocks

B3 – Black, shiny rocks

B4 – All other rocks

Students may want to wash off their rocks to see the colors. (* Screen wash water thru coffee filter, dry, examine)

  1. Examine and bag up B3. These black rocks are probably chert. They are found today in limestone layers between Rochester and Syracuse, New York. They were carried to Chemung County by a glacier. Chert may be the remains of fossilized sponges that lived over 400,000,000 years ago in a salty ocean. Visit

  2. The B4 rocks – those with colors of red, white, etc. – were also carried by glaciers. Many are igneous or metamorphic rocks. They came from Canada and the Adirondack Mountains. B4 rocks are called “glacial erratics.” Please bag these up to return to Cornell.

  3. Put all the B1 rocks together and weigh them. Record the weight. Look carefully at the B1 rocks. Some may have impressions of shells and other fossils. These fossils are about 365,000,000 years old, from a time called the Devonian. B1 rocks with fossils should be bagged and returned to Cornell. B1 rocks without fossils are yours to keep.

  4. Do the same sorting and examination of B2 rocks. Record the total weight. Return the rocks with fossils and keep the ones without. The B1 and B2 rocks are called “shale.” By weighing the big and small rocks separately, we are trying to determine where in the pond the water was running quickly (big rocks), and where it was slower (little rocks).

Session #3: You will need a bowl of water, a spoon, some coffee filters, and towels.

  1. Take about ½ teaspoon of “dirt” from bag C and dump in into a bowl of water. Rocks, ivory, fossils will sink. Insect fossils, hair, and other organics will float. Use your spoon, fingers, or filters to collect the floating material. Let this dry and examine with a magnifying glass. Place all interesting materials – seeds, hairs, insect parts, etc. in a bag to return to Cornell.

  2. When all of C has been “wet-sorted,” pour off the water, let the material at the bottom of the bowl dry, and examine. Look for brown-colored pieces of bone; creamy-colored pieces of tusk (ivory). Bag up the interesting discoveries and return.

Please send us: Bags A, B1 and B2 with fossils, interesting things from C, B3, B4, the weights of B1 and B2 (with units), and the names of all your students/researchers. A class photo would be welcome – we’ll add it to our web page – also tell us about yourself and your students – do you want to participate in the future.

Please return material by April 1, 2000 to:
Project Mastodon

1160 Snee Hall

Cornell University

Ithaca, NY 14853

Data Sheet
Please return by April 1st, 2000 to: Project Mastodon

1160 Snee Hall

Cornell University

Ithaca, NY 14853


Call John Chiment 607-255-1010



Date on Bag of Matrix: ______________
Weight of all “Big Grey Rocks”: ___________
Weight of all “Little Grey Rocks”: ___________
Photocopies of any graphs, drawings, explorations:
Attach sheet with the names of all researchers:

(and a photo, if possible)

Please return all wood, cones, leaves, bones, ivory, black shiny rocks, multicolored rocks, unusual fossils, gray “shale” rocks with fossil impressions.
Finally would you take a moment to tell us about yourself; about your group, and would you like to do this again?

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