It’s a Mastodon Vertebra! Answer to FoW #28

Anterior view of the mastodon atlas.

Anterior view of the mastodon atlas.

Congrats to Dale and Bob who knew the right answer, and cryptically hid it in their responses, and to everyone else who guessed right or came awfully close! This is indeed the first cervical (neck) vertebra, also known as the atlas, of a mastodon. Why is it called an “atlas”!? Because of its position as the first vertebra, it in a sense it holds up the skull – reminiscent of Atlas of Greek mythology who held up the world. How do we know it’s a mastodon and not a mammoth? Well, there is one clear difference between the two species. The dorsal tubercle, which is the upward projecting protuberance at the top of the photo, is more pointed in mastodons but very flat and broad in mammoths. Mastodon remains are also much more common in Ohio than mammoths, so it’s more likely that one would find a mastodon bone.

Atlas vertebra of mastodon compared to other species.

Atlas vertebra of mastodon compared to other species.

Compare the size of the mastodon atlas with the first vertebrae of an elk, wolf, and rhesus macaque monkey (photo). The scale is six inches. It’s interesting that the atlas is the only vertebra that doesn’t have a distinctly visible central portion, called the body. The atlas is basically a ring of bone. In most mammals though, an atlas body remnant of some size is present. The partner to the atlas is second cervical vertebra, known as the axis, and it fits neatly into the posterior side of the atlas (see illustration). This structure of the atlas and axis allows rotation of the head.
Atlas and axis of a human.

Atlas and axis of a human.

We’re glad that our anonymous donor not only decided to give the specimen to a museum but provided information about where this bone was found. When we know where and when an object is collected it becomes a specimen valuable to science, rather than a curiosity of which we know little about. Many very important finds of Pleistocene species in Ohio have been found by people during normal tasks such as digging to install drainage tiles or to enlarge a pond, or walking along a stream. So if you find bones or teeth, let us know! We’re always happy to identify such finds. Then if you decide to donate them to a museum, you’re not only making a contribution to science but your name will be attached to that specimen in perpetuity! A good example, the Conway mastodon!

One Step Closer to Cloning a Mammoth

In May of 2013, an international team of scientists unearthed the frozen remains of a female mammoth on Maly Lyakhovsky Island, off the coast of the Republic of Sakha in Siberia. It was so fresh that it oozed blood, and one researcher reportedly even took a bite.

Initially only the tusks were visible above the ground. Further excavation revealed not only the rest of her head and trunk, but also three legs and mostly intact internal organs. Informally named “Buttercup”, her teeth reveal that she was around 50 at the time of her death, which was carbon-dated to around 43,000 years ago. This mammoth lived and breathed during a time when Neanderthals and modern humans coexisted and interbred.

Her stomach still contained buttercups and dandelions, and growth rings in her tusks suggest she had weaned 8 calves and had one miscarriage over the course of her long life. The hemoglobin in her blood was adapted to release oxygen in lower temperatures. Tooth marks on her skeleton indicate that she was partially eaten by wolves and other predators, but she froze solid soon after her death and remained that way until her discovery.

Photo credit: Renegade Pictures

Buttercup was about the size of a modern Asian Elephant, her closest living relative.

A number of frozen mammoths have been recovered in recent years as permafrost has thawed, including Yuka, a calf with its fur and mummified brain still intact. “Buttercup” is the oldest and most well-preserved. Analysis of her tissue has yielded the largest fragments of DNA yet recovered from a mammoth, which raises the question: If we can clone a mammoth, should we?

The question has created an interesting ethical dilemma. Rather than finding frozen sperm, it is more likely that fragments of DNA from today’s Asian Elephant will be used to “fill in the gaps” of the fragmented mammoth genome, which was 70% sequenced in 2008. Once fully assembled, the complete genome would be inserted into the egg of a modern elephant, which would then implanted into a modern female elephant. This elephant would then essentially act as an incubator for the genetically engineered mammoth.

Photo credit: National Geographic


“De-extinction” of any species is fraught with a laundry list of practical and ethical stumbling blocks. Further, successfully cloning a mammoth will require experimentation on dozens of endangered Asian Elephants. Should we subject them to a potentially life-threatening 22-month gestation period?  (Is 22 months even the normal gestation period for a mammoth?)

If brought to term, an ice age relic–adapted for roaming freely across frigid expanses of steppe with others of its kind–would be forced to live out its days in a concrete box, in today’s modern world with its tall rectangles, heat waves and endless loud noises.

It would be cool to see a real live mammoth, I admit. But is it cool enough to justify the prohibitive cost, the expenditure of increasingly limited resources, and the likely setbacks at the expense of a living species?

What do YOU think? Should we clone a mammoth? Let us know in the comments!


A surprise package arrives! Freak of the Week #28

Posterior view of the object.

Posterior view of the object.

One of the fun things about working in a museum is getting to see the wide variety of objects that people find, and then trying to identify them. We will occasionally get unsolicited packages in the mail, and you never know what you’re going to see! Well, one came last week and here are a few photos of the object. Rather than just telling you what it is, we’ll make it this week’s Freak of the Week! Can you identify it!? The object is about 13 inches wide and 8 inches high.

Anterior view.

Anterior view.

Posterior-lateral view.

Posterior-lateral view.

They’re Lacewing Eggs! Answer to Freak of the Week #26

This is something that apparently people have not noticed very often, so here’s Bob’s answer to this week’s puzzling “Freak”:

Green Lacewing Eggs

Green Lacewing Eggs

These are the eggs of the Green Lacewing. Green Lacewings are in the family Chrysopidae, in the insect order Neuroptera. The order also includes fishflies, snakeflies, and antlions.

The eggs were found hanging on a branch along the wetland boardwalk at Wahkeena Nature Preserve on September 25th. The eggs themselves are only about 1 or 2 mm long, with the silky looking stalk less than half an inch. Female lacewings typically lay 100 to 200 eggs – so this is only a small part of a total clutch. Lacewings apparently have learned not to “put all their eggs in one basket (branch or leaf)”. The eggs are reported to typically hatch in the fall, with the lacewings overwintering in a prepupa stage, or in some species as a newly hatched adult.

Green lacewing. Photo by Jim McCormac.

Green lacewing. Photo by Jim McCormac.

Adult Green Lacewings are attractive, delicate looking insects. Their wings certainly fit their name, as they look like oblong lace doilys, except that what would be an empty space in a doily is filled with a filmy, transparent membrane. Size varies, but most are less than half an inch long. The photo here is compliments of Jim Mccormac.

While some lacewings feed on pollen and nectar of flowers, the most common Green Lacewing is almost totally predaceous. The eggs hatch into a larva which looks a lot like an antlion, a small six-legged crawling tank with huge jaws on the front. The larvae crawl up the egg stalk, and then begin to look for aphids. Due to the aggressive appetite of both larvae and adults, they are sometimes called “aphid lions.” Organic gardeners sometimes purchase lacewing eggs, with recommendations of releasing 1,000 eggs in every 200 square feet of garden! Some sources suggest rather than buying eggs, to promote plants that seem to favor lacewings. These include some beauties, like cosmos, various sunflowers and dill – but also include things like dandelions and angelica.

The lacewing larvae are really quite an interesting predator. In areas where aphids are abundant, they crawl around waving their head from side to side – and if their maxillae strike something, they grab it. The maxillae are hollow, and they inject a digestive enzyme into the aphid – which can dissolve the aphids’ tissues in as little as 90 seconds into a slurry that the lacewing sucks up. Sounds like great material for a Sci-Fi movie! Get your favorite beverage and some popcorn and sit in front of the TV for a late-night freaky thriller. Or better yet, just scan the undergrowth of your backyard or favorite park for the real thing!

Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History

Tomorrow is Natural History Day at OHC!

BreakfastWithConway_111613_01Did you know that we have more than 29,000 specimens of fossils, rocks and minerals, plants, insects, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish? On Saturday Nov. 1 from 10 AM until noon, explore Ohio’s natural history with special activities for the whole family, all included with museum admission. Tour the exhibit Going, Going, Gone? Endangered and Extinct Species; get up close and personal with natural history specimens; discover animals all over the museum; meet Jennifer Rounds, author of the new children’s book A Flock for Martha; and learn about adventures awaiting you beyond the museum, from nature and wildlife groups who’ll be on hand. Click here for more information.

Ohio History Connection members: enjoy Breakfast With Conway (our resident mastodon) for just $5 per person or free if you bring a non-member friend! Advance registration required—call 800.686.1545.

Answer: FoW #27

Australian Dylan Maxwell recently reported that a tropical spider burrowed into his skin, leaving a foot-long wound going up his chest. There are a few problems with his story, some of which I covered in my last post, but let’s stick to the pictures.

First, the wound. It looks like a long, skinny burn mark–as if someone ran the end of a hot knife down his chest. It’s actively oozing lymph, and there are other reddened areas adjacent to the scar. The unmarked skin has a general reddish flush.

Here’s the same wound a couple weeks later, after it’s healed somewhat:DylanCapture

Although some people are indeed allergic to spider venom, which can cause localized swelling and itching and sometimes the release of lymph fluid at the bite site, no known species of spider burrows into living tissue or creates a track like this. It’s possible that it was some other kind of arachnid, but I have my doubts.

So if it wasn’t a spider, any other kind of arachnid, what made this distinctive wound?

jelly1Probably the same thing that did this!

Although this case is much worse than Dylan’s, we see a similar pattern here of long, skinny dark red marks and localized swelling.

Still stumped? Another clue is that this happened in Bali in early October. If you were in Bali, what would you do? Go to the beach, perhaps?

If you’ve spent any time in tropical Pacific waters, this sign will be a familiar sight:jelly

Box jellyfish are particularly deadly because they are not only large, but also venomous. The stinging cells (nematocysts) in their tentacles contain a chemical that causes blood vessels to leak potassium, which can ultimately cause cardiac arrest if enough venom is injected.

It probably wasn’t a box jelly that stung him, but the waters of Bali do have them, as well as smaller species of jellyfish that also cause a raised blister and lifelong scarring (warning: link not for the faint of heart!). A jellyfish sting causes immediate burning pain, which varies in severity depending on the species and the amount of skin affected. The stung skin initially appears somewhat reddened and swollen, like a mosquito bite, but fluid-filled blisters appear within 24 hours and the painful wound oozes lymph. As it heals, a dark scar forms.

What’s surprising is that the Australians haven’t picked up on this yet, or at least suggested that it’s a possibility. October through May is widely known to be “stinger season” along the tropical coasts of the country, and many people choose to avoid the water altogether. Even a disembodied piece of tentacle–probably what happened in Dylan’s case–can cause a painful sting.

Hopefully Dylan will get back to us soon with details about what the doctors removed from his body. I’m just as curious as you are, but as of this posting the internet seems to have forgotten all about it. Maybe it’s some kind of tiny burrowing beach crustacean. Or maybe, despite the millions of visitors that Bali’s beaches get every day, it is in fact a species of flesh-eating spider that has been heretofore unknown to science.

Or maybe he just got stung by a jellyfish.

Congrats to Mike for guessing correctly!




Freak of the Week #27: Spider Burrowing in Man’s Skin!?

You may have heard by now that Australian man Dylan Maxwell had a spider removed from his skin after it crawled into his appendix scar, leaving a blistering trail up his abdomen over the course of three days while he was on holiday in Bali. The doctors initially told him it was a “bug bite”, and sent him away with antihistamines. He returned a couple days later and they removed a dead spider from the scar.

But rest easy, folks! This story probably isn’t accurate.

Our first clue is that the story was originally published by NT News, a online tabloid newspaper–the equivalent of the U.S.’s National Enquirer.


The blistering scar, taken from Dylan’s Facebook page

So far, the only details regarding the incident have been submitted by Dylan himself, and have not been corroborated by outside sources–such as the doctors in Bali who examined him.

The alleged spider was taken away for “testing”, and his original Facebook post says he was not able to take a picture as it was extracted because he didn’t have his phone, so we have no documentation that it happened.

The stories all wrap up with “We’ll know what it was by next week”; but by “next week” we’ll be chattering about something else, like how different Renee Zellweger looks now, and will have forgotten all about Dylan’s incident.

This has all the earmarks of your garden-variety internet hoax.


It also helps to know a little bit about spider biology. Burrowing through flesh is not something that any known species of spider has the equipment or inclination for. Their mouth parts are evolved for piercing, not gouging. They are generally pretty soft-bodied, and their legs work by hydraulic pressure rather than muscle contraction. A spider of the size to make the kind of track on Dylan’s abdomen would not have legs with enough tensile strength to propel the spider forward through dense, irritated flesh.

He also reports that the spider burrowed into his appendix scar, but the scar would have to be pretty fresh to be a legitimate entrance into the skin. Given the other material he’s posted on his public Facebook page, you’d think going in for major surgery would have at least garnered a mention. I can find no evidence that he had his appendix removed within the 2-3 weeks before his Bali trip.

Although it is possible Dylan was invaded by some type of arachnid, this behavior is more expected from a mite or a tick, which have more robust exoskeletons and mouth parts that are more suited to chewing. Medical doctors are not necessarily known for their arthropod identification skills, but one might expect Balinese doctors to have a broader knowledge base. Although English is widely spoken in Bali, there may have been a language barrier as well.

This story has been picked up and circulated by several reputable and fact-checked news sources, shared on social media thousands of times, and is likely terrorizing a number of people’s dreams, but i’ll say it again: Relax, folks! Spiders. Don’t. Burrow. Into. Humans.

The ID of the critter allegedly removed from Dylan’s scar has not yet been reported. But this looks an awful lot like something else to me…


Screen cap from NT News interview, showing the healing scar


I’ll give you a hint: it’s not something we need to worry about here in Ohio.

What does this look like to YOU? Let us know in the comments!



Columbus Audubon 5k on Nov 8!

Looking for a way to stay in shape and promote environmental awareness and conservation at the same time?

Consider Columbus Audubon’s inaugural Take Flight 5K, happening Saturday, November 8th at 9AM. Join fellow outdoors enthusiasts on a paved nature trail beginning and ending at the Scioto Audubon Metro Park and Grange Insurance Audubon Center. Not into running? No problem! You can also register as a walker to enjoy the trail at a more leisurely pace–on your own, or with a buddy or two!

If you’re not sure what to do with the kids, bring them along! They can build a birdhouse at the Grange Audubon Center while you walk or run.

Register for the Take Flight 5K here, but be sure to sign up by October 25! Registration fees are $25 for runners and $20 for walkers. Each participant receives a long sleeved t-shirt and other goodies, and the race is timed for serious runners. All proceeds from the event directly support Columbus Audubon.

Comments on Freak of the Week #25; and new FoW #26

Sandstone slab from Tarlton Cross.

Sandstone slab from Tarlton Cross.

Well, the consensus on this sandstone slab that was found near Tarlton Cross is that it’s a naturally weathered stone. The photos were also posted on the OHC Archaeology blog and sent to several geologists, and everyone seems to agree that the stone was not altered by humans. One of the best comments was from a local archaeologist who lives in the Tarlton Cross area and said he’s been all over the site and this is “just a common old rock”. When in doubt, ask someone who is the most familiar with the area! We’ll keep this “case” open and are always willing to hear other opinions, but so far it seems to be a natural occurrence. Thanks to everyone who examined the stone and gave their comments.

Now for a change of pace! Here’s Freak of the Week # 26, submitted by Bob Glotzhober, Curator Emeritus of Natural History:
Are these Styrofoam Christmas decorations, just drying and waiting to be painted? What are they? Give us your thoughts – and later we’ll provide the answer.

Freak of the Week #26

Freak of the Week #26

Today is National Fossil Day!

Today is the fifth annual National Fossil Day, hosted by the National Park Service and the American Geosciences Institute. In trying to decide what to post today to honor this occasion, I thought we could post a series of photos of fossils from our collection or maybe discuss why fossils are important in helping us understand the past, etc. But then I ran across a letter written by the President of the United States when introducing the first National Fossil Day in 2010. I guess I’ll let him tell you about the significance of this occasion. Click here to read the letter.

OK, I guess a photo or two is called for as well!

A phalanx (toe bone) from  the McGill Mastodon, excavated by OHC in 1978. Champaign Co., Ohio.

A phalanx (toe bone) from the McGill Mastodon, excavated by OHC in 1978. Champaign Co., Ohio.

A fossil fern, Pecopteris sp., from the Pennsylvanian Period, Doanville, Ohio.

A fossil fern, Pecopteris sp., from the Pennsylvanian Period, Doanville, Ohio.