News From Terre Haute, Indiana

May 24, 2013

Relic from another age: Massive find

Spring flooding helps unearth mastadon leg bone in southern Vigo County

Arthur Foulkes
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — A mastodon that lived in the Wabash Valley thousands of years ago is making big news today.

Newspapers and news outlets across the state have picked up the news of Bob James’ discovery: A 17-pound, intact, mastodon bone discovered in southwestern Vigo County near the Wabash River.

When James, a supervisor with the Vigo County Highway Department, first saw the bone during an inspection of road damage from recent flooding, he believed it to be a piece of drift wood. Upon closer inspection, he realized it was something far more interesting.

“I knew it was a bone as soon as I saw it” closer up, James said Thursday in his Terre Haute home. James has worked for the highway department for more than two decades, but this is the first time he knows of anyone finding anything like this while on the job.

The bone was discovered where flooding has recently damaged a levy along the Wabash River, James said. About 60 feet away from the bone, James also found what looks like part of a mastodon tooth, but that’s not been confirmed.

The bone, believed to be an upper leg bone, is a little more than 24 inches in length and about 26 inches around at its largest joint. James found it along West Little Drive, a remote roadway not far from the town of Prairie Creek.

Soon after his discovery, James contacted Ron Richards, senior research curator of paleobiology at the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis, and Richards informed him the bone is that of a mastodon, a creature that wondered the earth for more than a million years before vanishing at the end of the ice age that concluded about 12,000 years ago.

“We know they were abundant in Indiana,” Richards said of the mastodon. “Of the ice age animals, it’s the one that’s most commonly discovered.”

The mastodon probably lived between 12- and 15,000 years ago, Richards estimated.

A typical mastodon would be about 15 feet long with shoulders about 10 feet above the ground, according to the website,

James said his next step is to take the bone to the Indiana State Museum where Richards will basically help further identify and preserve it. Eventually, James would like to allow the bone to be displayed by the Terre Haute Children’s Museum, he said.

“I’d like people around here to be able to see it,” James said.

James’ fiancé’, Michelle Latta, who also works for the county highway department, said she was skeptical when James told her what he had found.

“I didn’t believe it at first,” she said. “Who would?”

As for the rest of the animal’s skeleton, Richards said it is unlikely to be found. The currents of the river have almost certainly scattered the bones all around, he said.

“It’s probably just an isolated bone,” Richards said. “The big rivers really move things a long way.”

Reporter Arthur Foulkes can be reached at 812-231-4232 or


n Mastadon are an extinct group of mammal species related to elephants, that inhabited North and Central America during the late Miocene or late Pliocene up to their extinction at the end of the Pleistocene 12,000 years ago.  

n They lived in herds and were predominantly forest dwelling animals that fed on a mixed diet of browsing and grazing with a seasonal preference for browsing, in contrast to living elephants that are mostly grazing animals.

n The American mastodon is the most recent and best-known species of the genus. They disappeared from North America as part of a mass extinction, widely presumed to have been a result of rapid climate change in North America, as well as the sophistication of stone tool weaponry used by the Clovis hunters which may have caused a gradual attrition of the mastodon population.

Source: Wikipedia