Professor Dan Fisher hops into holes with preserved animals and fossils on a regular basis, going to great lengths to figure out how prehistoric humans used their available resources to survive.
It’s the mid-1990s, and Dan Fisher gets a phone call about a dead elephant. That’s no surprise. As a curator at LSA’s Museum of Paleontology, Fisher often deals with the remains of dead mammoths and mastodons. But this is an unusual request. The Toledo Zoo asks Fisher to help exhume the remains of an elephant that it had buried in a city landfill when the animal died 17 years earlier. Space at the landfill has grown scarce, and the zoo has been asked to remove whatever is left of its elephant.
Fisher grabs his “Mastodon First Aid Kit” on his way out the door. He has assembled the kit for occasions just like this, when he needs to rush out to collect a specimen at a moment’s notice. He has four or five students and colleagues from the museum in tow. Did someone bring the shovels? Check. Ropes? Got ’em. Meter sticks, buckets, tags, cameras, surveyor’s flags? Load them all in the pickup truck. Let’s go!
Fisher, who also is a professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences and the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, sees great value in having access to the zoo’s elephant skeleton. He’ll be able to use the bones to gain perspective on the ancient mammoths and mastodons that he digs up at sites in Michigan and around the world. He wants to closely examine the elephant’s ribs and spine, so he can understand the anatomy of those bones from one end of the animal to the other. Wrists, ankles, and toe bones are especially hard to get, and Fisher has all kinds of questions that he’d like to answer about the foot anatomy of his mammoths and mastodons. A skeleton like that would offer truckloads of information, and Fisher can’t wait to get his hands on it.
How hard could it be to get elephant bones from Toledo to Ann Arbor, anyway?