GRAIN VALLEY — It was probably just a youngster when it died, standing perhaps 5 feet tall. But the mastodon whose remains lay for thousands of years under what is now private property in eastern Jackson County was large enough to attract paleontologists.
A construction worker came across some of the prehistoric mammal’s bones last week while excavating land owned by Debbie and Steve Gildehaus. The bones were in clay, about 30 feet below ground level.
“We were digging a lake and just happened upon it,” Debbie Gildehaus said.
Gildehaus contacted the University of Kansas, prompting a visit by Larry Martin, curator of vertebrate paleontology. By the end of the week, he was working with vertebrate paleontologist Craig Sundell and their colleague Harry Bartholomew to uncover what appeared to be a rib and another long bone.
The Grain Valley mastodon was likely a baby that died in a bog, Martin said.
Martin said the mastodon could have lived as long as 50,000 years ago. The last survivors of the species lived 10,000 years ago.
A relative of the elephant, mastodons lived across North America. They typically stood 6 to 10 feet tall and measured 15 feet long, including the trunk, and weighed 4 to 6 tons. Where mastodons roamed, tools made from their bones sometimes turn up along with the remains of the animals, he said. That raises hope of finding tools near the bones already unearthed on the Gildehaus property, possibly along with more of the skeleton itself.
Martin said work has just begun on the dig.
“Right at the moment we’re on the edge of discovery,” he said.