Thursday, May 10, 2012

Elk-Moose: Prehistoric Mammalian New Jersey Native

Howdy folks!  For today's post I decided to stray away a bit from the dinosaur scene but still remain within the paleontology field.  That's right I'm going to be talking about prehistoric mammals.  Did you know that in addition to our beloved dinosaurs, New Jersey was also home to a bunch of other prehistoric animals as well?  Many famous mammal fossils have been discovered in the garden state including the well known Mastodon, Giant Ground Sloth, ancient beavers and even a prehistoric walrus!  At the State Museum in Trenton, there is the skeleton of another prehistoric NJ native commonly dubbed the "elk-moose".  Is it an elk or a moose?  It seems to have features of both.   

My quick life restoration  Cervalces americanus

My friend and former Rutgers classmate, Amanda Giesler, is now a graduate student of paleontology focusing on deer and their relatives (called cervids).  She asked me if I knew anything about the mysterious elk-moose skeleton's whereabouts and luckily for her I did!  It wasn't long before I met her at the museum to help her obtain some data for her studies.  I have to admit I'm not much of an expert myself on cervids...but she is!  Take it away, Amanda!

"About me: I am currently completing my M.S. degree in geosciences at East Tennessee State University. I am a NJ native, and completed my B.S. degree in Ecology and Natural Resources at Rutgers University in 2010. In the future, I would like to continue research in the field of Pleistocene paleoecology, work on a PhD, and eventually become a professor. I am getting married in June and have an awesome dachshund named Roo Roo.
 On March 5th, 2011, I had the pleasure of visiting the NJ State Museum for the first time. New Jersey is well known for Dryptosaurus and Hadrosaurus fossils, but I was interested in the state’s mammalian claim to fame: Cervalces americanus, the extinct elk moose. Only two skeletons in the entire world of this Pleistocene giant are known, both derived from bogs in our home state.  The specimen at the NJSM was actually the first Cervalcesmaterial ever found, formally described by W.B. Scott in 1885. Only a few bones are missing, and the antlers are exquisitely preserved, which are the best element for identification of Cervalcesmaterial. 

Amanda and the very handsome Cervalces americanus.  (Amanda is the shorter bipedal one one on the right.)

 The elk moose is aptly named; some features of its skeleton are like that of the moose (Alces alces), while some features are more elk-like (Cervus elaphus). This becomes a problem with identification of Pleistocene fossil material because Ice Age faunas were extremely rich, and many times contained multiple cervid (deer) taxa. It is currently believed that the elk moose did not exist contemporaneously with the living moose or elk, but that is not known with certainty. Radiocarbon dates could help determine when the living and fossil taxa occurred, but these dates cannot be obtained when identification the material is difficult or impossible. Of course, paleontologists want to know whether they have discovered an extinct taxon or a living form, but the unique features of Cervalces could cause it to be easily confused with moose or elk fossil material.
Amanda measures the teeth.  Being a paltontologist can be tedious at times.  I was holding the camera like a boss. 

 All this being said, I am studying the cervids (deer) from a late Pleistocene aged cave in northeast Tennessee for my M.S. thesis work. Based on dental remains, multiple taxa are present, so I needed to study white-tailed deer, caribou, elk, moose, and elk-moose because all of these taxa could have been present at that time. This is what brought me to the New Jersey State Museum; other known fossils ofCervalces teeth may or may not belong to the extinct elk-moose. At this point in time, antlers are needed to truly distinguish Cervalces from other large deer. The NJSM specimen is special because the skull is complete with antlers and mildly worn adult dentition, so I could be certain that those teeth did in fact belong to Cervalces. I am currently working on morphological characters of the teeth which may help separate Cervalcesfrom other large deer, and using photos of the NJSM specimen to help me identify fossils from my cave."

I made Amanda promise me she would keep me posted on her project.  I am also looking forward to attending her wedding in June.  Maybe I'll wear my sweet Tyrannosaurus necktie...

Works Cited 

Churcher, C.S., and J.D. Pinsof. 1987. Variation in the antlers of North American Cervalces (Mammalia: Cervidae): Review of new and previously recorded specimens. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 7(4):373-397.
Geist, V. 1998. Deer of the world: Their Evolution, Behavior, and Ecology. Stackpole Books, Mechanicsburgh, PA, 432 pp.
Graham, R.W., and E.L. Lundelius, Jr. 2010. FAUNMAP II: New data for North America with a temporal extension for the Blancan, Irvingtonian and early Rancholabrean. FAUNMAP II Database, version 1.0 <>
Guthrie, 1990. New dates on Alaskan Quaternary moose, Cervalces-Alces: archaeological, evolutionary, and ecological implications. Current Research in the Pleistocene 7:111-112.
Kurtén, B. and E. Anderson (eds.). 1980. Pleistocene mammals of North America. Columbia Univeristy Press, New York, 442 pp.

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