Today’s factismal: Browsing animals, like mastodons, eat leaves from shrubs and trees and grazing animals, like wooly mammoths, eat grasses and other things from the ground.
To a biologist, where an animals eats is often as important as what it eats. That’s because the animal’s food source tells scientists a lot about the environment. For example, a browsing animal such as a mastodon wouldn’t do well in an open prairie environment because it wouldn’t have anything to eat. And that tells the biologist what other animals to look for when they find a pile of mastodon bones; there won’t be many miracinonyx (fast cheetah-like prairie cats) or titanis (eight foot tall flightless birds that could run 65 mph), but there would be plenty of smilodons (that’s “sabre-tooth tiger” to you) and castorides (an eight foot tall beaver). From that information, a paleontologist can soon construct a model of the environment.
And that model is important, because it tells them what else to look for (and where to look!). By modeling the environment, paleontologists can understand how different types of animals respond to changes and answer questions such as: what animals thrive as the world warms? what happens when a wetland turns into a prairie? how quickly can animals adapt when a food source vanishes? The answer to those questions then tell us a lot about how life has changed over the course of Earth’s history and give us insight into biological processes; they also often tell us a lot about the animal that we started to study in the first place.
If you’d like to try your hand at gathering some information on an ancient environment, then why not join the Mastodon Matrix Project? (Teachers: this makes a terrific class science project!) You’ll be sent a piece of the sediment that covered a mastodon skeleton; true geeks and Neo call it the matrix. After you sort out the stuff in the matrix, you send it back to the project, along with any observations and ideas you might have. For more information, head over to their web site!