CHICAGO — Walking through the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibit, a museum visitor can see how the world has changed during the last 4.5 billion years.
There’s SUE the T-rex, the museum’s most famous dinosaur fossil. There are replicas of early humans. And there’s everything in between.
A stop in the Ice Age exhibit reveals woolly mammoth paintings and a mastodon skeleton. Standing right next to it, at about 13 feet tall, is a mammoth skeleton that with its two large tusks and long legs looks an awful lot like a modern-day elephant.
But the history of this mammoth is a little bit more complicated. And it started in Spokane County.
The large bones of four different mammoths found in Latah have been on display, mounted into one skeleton, at the Field Museum in Chicago for nearly 100 years. At the time, it was one of very few mammoth skeletons to exist.
Paleontologists have now identified mammoth and mastodon skeletons across the country, but Spokane County’s legacy still stands tall in Chicago.
And as some researchers hope to slow the climate crisis by bringing back the woolly mammoth, looking back at the history of these creatures is more important now than ever.
“Because this specimen has been mounted for so long, people can see and visualize what these creatures looked like,” said Bill Simpson, head of geological collections at the Field Museum in Chicago.
The journey to bring the bones to Chicago was a long one, especially since their discovery predates the creation of the Field Museum.
More than 120 bones from four mammoths were found during an excavation in 1876 on a marshy hollow owned by the Coplen family in Latah, according to a 2001 thesis by Charles Luttrell at Eastern Washington University. The Coplen family was the first settlers to claim the land.
There were three jaws, six tusks, dozens of vertebrae, ribs, skulls, feet and more from four mammoths, according to a Chicago Academy of Science bulletin from 1886.
In total, the bones weighed about 700 pounds, according to the bulletin.
Upon discovering the bones, the Coplen brothers took them on an exhibition road trip from Colfax to Dayton to Walla Walla, according to Luttrell’s research. They were later shipped via Columbia River steamer to multiple destinations in Oregon.
After the exhibitions, the bones were temporarily kept at Pacific University in Oregon, according to the thesis. About five years later, the Chicago Academy of Science bought the bones for $350.
In 1893, the mammoth was put on display at the World’s Columbia Exposition in Chicago, as part of Washington State’s world’s fair display. Twenty years later in 1914, it was sold to the Field Museum in Chicago for $500. It was not put on display in the museum, however, until its new building was completed in 1920.
Since then, the museum has remounted, restored and reassembled the skeleton multiple times.
The bones are what scientists now consider Mammuthus columbi, or the now-extinct North American elephant. Although closely related to woolly mammoths and more distantly related to mastodons, the North American elephant likely looked a lot like today’s Asian or African elephants, Simpson said.
It’s hard to determine exactly how old the bones are, but Simpson estimated they’re somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 years old. The bones are from the late-Pleistocene age, which ended just 10,000 years ago — a very short amount of time in a geological sense, Simpson said.
Paleontologists don’t yet have a good understanding of why many species went extinct.
“It’s not an easy question because we aren’t there to see it,” Simpson said.
Some explanations could be a changing climate or introduction of new illnesses or disease.
What bringing back the mammoth could do A group of scientists announced last month they were starting a company, called Colossal, to attempt to bring back the woolly mammoth using a process known as de-extinction.
Colossal, which has received $15 million in initial funding, will support biologist George Church’s research, according to the New York Times. Church and his researchers have experimented with adding genes for mammoth traits, such as dense hair and thick fat, and now hope to produce embryos of mammoths.
The process will “slow the long term impacts of human-induced loss of biodiversity,” according to Colossal’s website. The idea is that de-extinction, bringing animals back to their original habitat, can begin reversing climate damage.
The process starts by collecting DNA from modern-day elephants and viable mammoth tissue samples from woolly mammoth fossils. They then identify which traits in the modern-day elephant DNA to edit and which cold-resistant traits in woolly mammoth samples they hope to recreate. They then take elephant DNA and place cold-resistant characteristics into it.
Their hope is to then take the new embryo and implant it into a surrogate elephant, which researchers hope can then give birth to a woolly mammoth.
Making modern-day elephants cold-adapted could also be one way to save the endangered species because it could allow them to live in colder habitats, Simpson said. It could also slow global warming.
When mammoths roamed in cold areas, their ecosystem was rich in grasses as they trampled any trees in the area, Simpson said. Without large trees, the cold air was able to hit the ground and keep it cold in the winter. Bringing elephants back into these cold habitats could keep the permafrost from melting, Simpson said.
That could be done with slightly altering existing elephants, not necessarily bringing back woolly mammoths. The de-extinction and gene-altering of woolly mammoths remains controversial.
“Maybe we can,” Simpson said. “But should we?”
‘Determining who’s related to whom’
The mounted skeleton in the Field Museum’s Evolving Planet exhibit is made up of the bones of four different mammoths found in Latah. Most of it is real bones, but some of it, including the skull, the feet and one tusk, are recreations.
This skeleton was one of the first to be discovered and mounted.
In early documents, it was described as one of only two or three in the country.
Now, there are many more mammoth and mastodon skeletons found and still being discovered, Simpson said.
Only 0.5% of specimens the Field Museum owns is on display at any time, said Simpson, who’s worked there for 42 years.
Most of what they own they’ve collected themselves, he added, and most of it was collected for research purposes to learn more about how the world has changed and where we come from.
For example, in original documents describing the mammoth skeleton, it was described as an Elaphas primigenius, a woolly mammoth.
But after decades of research, Simpson now knows that it’s actually a Mammuthus columbi, or a Columbian mammoth very closely related to modern-day elephants.
“That’s the bread and butter of what we do: determining who’s related to whom,” Simpson said.
People are just generally curious about where humans come from, Simpson said, and places like the Field Museum and skeletons like that of the Latah mammoths help them learn more.