MAYVILLE - Seth Colling had to stop digging in the dirt Sunday — and he wasn't happy about that.
"It was fun," said Colling, a part-time teacher at the Fowler Center for Outdoor Learning in Mayville. "I was disappointed to see it be over with, just because I thought there's probably more buried there. I wanted to keep going."
The Fowler Center offers year-round programs for people with developmental disabilities and special needs. About two years ago, Colling and a group of his students found what they at first thought was an oddly shaped piece of timber in a small creek that flows through the Fowler Center property.
It turned out to be a mastodon leg bone.
The past two weekends, paleontologists and graduate students from the University of Michigan and teachers from Tuscola County schools were working in the slippery clay along the creek, looking for mastodon bones. According to a news release from the university, they uncovered more than 75 complete bones, including the animal's huge skull.
"It was kind of a dream team to work with," Colling said. "Everything was a team effort. I'm the one who found it with a probe, but we all dug it out."
He said one of the team members from the University of Michigan was jumping up and down with excitement.
"I think for her, that was the highlight — seeing the teeth starting to come out," he said.
According to the news release, the mastodon was a male believed to have been about 30 years old when it died. It probably lived 11,000 to 13,000 years ago — radiocarbon dating should narrow that range to within a century or less.
The diggers were able to uncover about 60 to 70 percent of the animal's skeletal mass, according to the news release, including the long limb bones, shoulder blades, pelvis, skull, vertebrae and ribs. They did not uncover the tusks, lower jaw and most of the foot bones.
Daniel Fisher, director of the U-M Museum of Paleontology and leader of the dig, said in the news release that fewer than 10 of the roughly 300 mastodon skeletons found in Michigan are as complete as the Mayville mastodon.
"This is the most complete Michigan mastodon skeleton in many decades," he said in the news release.
"I think the last time a mastodon this complete was found in Michigan was in the 1940s," he said. "That was the Owosso mastodon, the mature female skeleton mounted at the U-M Museum of Natural History. As I recall, she was about 80 percent complete."
Ann Purdy, who teaches paleontology at St. Clair County Community College, called the find “very exciting.”
“Typically vertebrates because there are so many bones, so many parts and pieces of them, we typically don’t find everything,” she said “Usually you find just the larger bones.”
She said the climate in the Thumb at that time would have been similar to northern Canada – not tundra, but cool summers and very cold winters with plants such as spruce and balsam.
“You wouldn’t have had huge herds of mastodons, but they would have been quite numerous,” she said.
The college’s Nasr Natural History Museum has on loan several mammoth bones from the Walsh family in Ubly.
“Mammoths they kind of had a prairie, they ate prairie grasses,” said Suzanne Doherty, professor of physical sciences at SC4. “The mastodons, these guys were browsers so they would have been eating leaves and twigs, things like that."
Kyle Middleton, executive director of the Fowler Center, said the discovery is putting the area and the center in the spotlight.
"We've had an exorbitant amount of press," she said. "I haven't been able to keep up with how much.
"'Wow' would be my reaction as well."
The center, she said, donated the bones to the university.
"We plan on putting a permanent sign at the site along with facts once we get a lot of the facts from Dan Fisher," she said.