Why the Mastodon?
It all started about 10,000 years ago…
That’s when mastodons roamed the southern Great Lakes region of North America. These stocky versions of modern elephants reached heights of about ten feet at the shoulder, with tusks that curved upward that were six feet or more in length. Mastodons were browsers who fed mostly on leaves and twigs from small trees and shrubs.
One such mastodon found its final resting place about two miles south of Angola, on land that would eventually become part of Orsie Routsong’s farm. In fall 1968, Routsong decided to expand a small pond on his property. An excavator was hired and instructed to pile the excavated material around the edge of the pond. Several days after the excavation was finished a heavy rain storm pounded the piles of dirt. The next day, a young neighbor boy of Routsong’s discovered a large bone in one of the dirt piles. Routsong knew it was something out of the ordinary, so he called Jack Sunderman, chair of the Geology Department, to identify the bone, and to ask for advice on what to do with it. Sunderman says his first question was, “How big is the bone?” with Routsong’s answer being “pretty big, maybe 3 or 4 feet long.”
When Sunderman got to the farm, he identified the bone as a leg bone of a mastodon. He told Routsong a skeleton like this would have scientific and instructional value if a large portion of it could be located. Routsong agreed, and also agreed to have the Geology Department do the excavation. Sunderman got two more faculty members, Geoffrey Matthews and Bernd Erdtmann, and several geology students to help in the project.
Using metal rods to probe through the sticky clay around the pond, the team located quite a number of rib bones, vertebrae, and leg bones; but the skull and tusks were missing. After they finished going through the clay piles around the pond, the team decided to venture further out, into
The skull had been buried about four feet beneath the surface, and was upside down. The two tusks, about five feet long, were still in place—projecting from the skull!
The team completed its excavation, still missing several leg and toe bones. At this point, they got help from an unexpected source: the Student Government Association. That group provided funds for an additional machine excavation that would double the size of the pond. Routsong agreed with the proposition and the machine excavation continued for a few more weeks. However, only a few small scraps of bones were found.
After the original contracted time for the machine excavation ended, the operator independently decided to “go fishing” for bones for a few more hours. Sunderman picks up the story,
Imagine our excitement when we, the Geology Department team, learned the excavator had uncovered a second mastodon! With one of his last scoops, the excavator had pulled up the skull of a baby mastodon!
Unfortunately, Sunderman says that
After all the mastodon bones were collected, cleaned, and preserved, Routsong agreed to have the adult mastodon skeleton placed on permanent display at the university; the skull of the baby mastodon is now on loan to Science Central.
So that’s how the mastodon bones came to be encased in Kettler Hall; but how did the mastodon become the university mascot?
In spring 1970, The Communicator began a drive to come up with a mascot for the
...it sounds different, strange, and even ickey (as one female student put it). That’s exactly why. It’s different and yes, even strange. I’m tired of slavishly copying what Bloomington, West Lafayette, and other big schools do. And I’m tired of these high school attitudes and high school nicknames…For God’s Sakes, let’s have the courage to be a little different.
In the meantime, Indiana Congressman Mark Souder, who served as student body president in 1969-70, recalls being lobbied by the Geology Club to choose the
…a group from the Geology Club burst into the Student Government office, led by Dr. Erdtmann and Dr. Sunderman. I know Mike Nusbaumer was involved both as a student government leader and a geology club member.
Souder appointed a committee in student government to select a name (I was a member of that committee) although he was lobbying hard for the mastodon.
Souder says he’s not sure who else was on the committee, but he does recall that the majority of the committee members favored the mastodon. After some discussion on the subject, Souder says a vote was taken by the committee and the mastodon came out the winner.
Souder finished his recollection with these thoughts.
History shows that the advocacy of the geology club was correct. The fast, decisive action of the elected student government—though it did not please everyone and was not a precedent that the University desired to see—has also been upheld by history as the university regularly scores high in any list of unique university nicknames; even in this era when everybody strives to be different. We did it decades ago.
- Jack Sunderman, Professor Emeritus, Department of Geosciences, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne
- Professor Michael Nusbaumer, Department of Sociology, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne
- Mark Souder, former Congressman
- Jennifer Bosk, Alumni Relations director, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne; editor of The Communicator, December 1969