A mammoth state symbol from Washington's prehistory

October 10, 2014
Samantha Porter

State symbols are designated to reflect the history and culture of a place. For instance, in Washington, we have a state tree that's common to our region (the Western Hemlock) and also a state bird (the Willow Goldfinch)—there's even a state dance (care to square dance, anyone?).

Mrs. Sara Aebly, Chris Pineo, and Lt. Governor Brad Owen  testifying to the Legislature in 1998.

Mrs. Sara Aebly, Chris Pineo, and Lt. Governor Brad Owen testifying to the Legislature in 1998.

In the early 1990s, a group of elementary school students in Washington noticed an important piece of Washington's history that was not represented in the state symbols list: a remnant from prehistory Washington.

Prehistory is fascinating. Memorialized in the fossil record is evidence of massive floods, thousands of feet of solid ice and animals that we can now only imagine. Studying paleontology and learning what the planet looked like millions of years ago is akin to present-day detectives solving crimes with only a few clues and a wealth of scientific knowledge.

Mrs. Aebly's 2nd grade class in 1994.

Mrs. Aebly's 2nd grade class in 1994. 
Photo: Chris Pineo

This topic captivated Chris Pineo and his classmates in Mrs. Sara Jane Aebly’s second grade class at Windsor Elementary School in Cheney, Washington. While learning about dinosaurs and paleontology, the students read about a class in Colorado that designated a state fossil and it inspired Chris and his classmates to seek out a fossil that represented Washington state.

The students researched what animals existed in Washington millions of years ago and consulted several universities and museums for advice. Ultimately, Chris and his classmates chose the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) as the best representative of the state’s prehistory.

Part of the family Elephantidae, the Columbian mammoth is one of the largest land mammals to have ever roamed the North American continent. Both the Wooly mammoth and the Mastodon were smaller than the tall and lean Columbian mammoth that lived in both the eastern and western sides of the state.

Columbian mammoth specimens appear in the fossil record as far back as 1.8 million years but continue to appear as recent as 11,000 years ago (“recent” in paleontological terms). Specimens from these giant creatures can tell us a lot about the environment in which the mammoths lived, including climate temperature and even what they ate.

At the time, the Windsor Elementary students knew taking on a project to pass legislation could be a mammoth undertaking. Though the idea came from the students, Chris recalls Mrs. Aebly helped steward the project through four long years of legislative process. “Mrs. Aebly kept in touch with us as the years went by, even when the number of students involved became smaller,” he said.

Then in 1998, Chris and three classmates went to Olympia to testify in front of the House Committee on Government Administration. The bill, sponsored by Representatives Sheahan and Schoester and backed by Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen, ultimately passed the Legislature and was unanimously signed into law by Governor Gary Locke.

Fast forward 16 years later to February 2014 when the flame of mammoth mania was lit once again in Washington. A construction worker in the South Lake Union neighborhood of Seattle came across an eight-and-a-half foot tusk from a Columbian mammoth. The construction crew called upon the Burke Museum, Washington's state museum, to assess the tusk and Burke paleontologists were on the scene within hours. The team of paleontologists carefully excavated the tusk while large crowds and news media crews watched the work unfold over a period of two days.

Large crowds and news media watch as Burke Museum  paleontologists carefully excavate the tusk.

Large crowds and news media watch as Burke Museum paleontologists carefully excavate the tusk. Photo: Burke Museum.

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