220-Year-Old Extinct Elk Skull Found in Sullivan Lake on Display at Cranbrook

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Max Hella, an exhibit technician for Cranbrook Institute of Science, with the skull of an extinct Eastern elk, recently discovered at the bottom of a Fenton lake. The skull is at least 200 years old and is the rarest paleontology find Cranbrook has ever been involved with.

Cranbrook Institute of Science is open again with a shocking discovery.

The museum in Bloomfield Hills will greet visitors with the rarest paleontology find it has ever hosted, the massive skull of an extinct elk that roamed southeast Michigan roughly 220 years ago, which was discovered by random luck in a lake last month. 

“It’s magnificent,” Museum Director Mike Stafford said. “We have spent about three weeks preserving it after it’s been on the bottom of a lake for a couple hundred years.”

The Eastern elk was discovered in Sullivan Lake near Fenton last month after it became hooked on the anchor of a swim platform being moved by Michael Bleau and his family.

They brought up the 43-inch wide, 50-inch tall and 24-inch deep skull almost perfectly intact, preserved through two centuries by the water. The antlers on the skull have six points on each side.

Cranbrook is happy to provide identification and the age of specimens found by the public, commonly bones of American Mastodons. In addition to the elk, Cranbrook identified two lumbar vertebrae from a baleen whale found in an Atlas Township riverbed this summer by two Ortonville sisters.

Lumbar vertabrae from a baleen whale was recently found in a riverbed near Ortonville. Radiocarbon dating was used to determine the age of the bones at about 200 years old.

“It’s a mystery how you get whale bones there when they shouldn’t be, but they were probably moved by people,” Stafford said, hypothesizing that they could have been misplaced by members of the Hopewell culture, who were migrating from areas near the ocean. “It’s a real head-scratcher.”

The Eastern elk arrived naturally to the Michigan landscape. The animal was seen throughout eastern North America prior to being over hunted to extinction, with the last of these animals disappearing around 1875 from Michigan and declared extinct five years later by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The recently discovered elk dates to about 1800, give or take 30 years, its age determined by radiocarbon dating, as were the whale bones, which coincidentally have a similar age.

The Eastern elk is a close cousin of the Rocky Mountain elk, which was not present in Michigan at the same time. The Eastern elk was a slightly larger animal. 

Stafford speculates that the Eastern elk now at Cranbrook may have met its demise by getting stuck in the muck while drinking from the lake. The adult bull, which would have weighed up to 1,000 pounds and stood 50-60 inches tall at the shoulders, could have also broken through the ice while crossing the lake and drowned. There is no damage on the skull that would suggest the elk met its end at the hands of a human.

The skull of an extinct Eastern Elk, recently discovered at the bottom of a local lake, will be on display at Cranbrook Institute of Science when the museum reopens next week.

Stafford is sure there are more of the elk’s skeletal remains in the lake and the lifelong diver has considered a possible search to see if he can find more bones sticking up from the sediment.

Conservationists at the museum soaked the skull in Acrisol, a chemical which will harden the bones as they dry. The specimen, which the Bleaus have not yet named but have loaned to the museum until at least Jan. 1, will be ready for viewing when the museum reopens to visitors this week after a lengthy COVID-inspired shutdown.

“The elk has phenomenal curb appeal,” Stafford said. “It’s a snapshot in time, to help people understand that Michigan and the whole Great Lakes are constantly changing, there’s an enormous amount of diversity in living creatures here now and in the past. I hope it triggers them to think of their role in protecting what the natural history of Michigan is and could be, and become more attached to the place they are from.”

The skull of an Eastern Elk was recently discovered at the bottom of a Fenton lake and will be displayed at the Cranbrook Institute of Science. The find of the 200-year-old skull of a species that was declared extinct in 1880 is the rarest paleontology exhibit that Cranbrook has ever had.

The Cranbrook Institute of Science reopened to members Aug. 19 and opens to the general public Aug. 26. All guests will receive free general admission through Sept. 6 courtesy of MASCO Corporation Foundation. For more information, visit science.cranbrook.edu.

Source: www.hometownlife.com/