Why the newspapers think there is a woolly mammoth

Woolly mammoths in a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain | courtesy Mauricio Antón for the Public Library of Science
East End newspapers search for a scoop as extinction looms | courtesy Mauricio Antón for the Public Library of Science

We haven’t had this much fun on the East End since the Montauk Monster washed up on the shore.

Back in the middle of the summer, the folks over at the Group for the East End were doing one of their favorite things: reading an Environmental Impact Statement for the federal government’s proposed sale of Plum Island. Somewhere in the middle of that 512 page document, they noticed a brief mention of a newspaper clipping about an 1879 discovery of mammoth bones on Plum Island, which is well out of the historic range of woolly mammoth distribution in North America.

Someone tipped off The Suffolk Times and the front page media hype began rolling. The media said the feds said there was a woolly mammoth on the island. Environmentalists said it was a cool discovery that deserved further exploration, which, heck, would slow down the sale process, which was a good thing in their eyes.

By the time folks at the Southold Historical Society mentioned to the press that the lifesaving station mentioned in the article was on Plum Island, Massachusetts, the South Fork media had just gotten ahold of the original story, which quickly made its way onto the South Fork airwaves, where radio announcers credited The Southampton Press for a story that had already been proven false. On the same day, The Suffolk Times ran a much smaller story blaming the feds for telling them there was a woolly mammoth on the island and briefly mentioning that historians doubted the story.

The Beacon hasn’t weighed in on this discovery, in part because it didn’t pass what old-school editors used to call “the smell test,” and in part because our office is knee deep in an on-site sewage denitrification project that is taking up all of our time.

I feel kind of badly for my former co-workers at both The Suffolk Times and The Southampton Press for ending up at the center of this, but not nearly as badly as I feel for people who tell the press they’ve seen bobcats or water spouts in their backyards who then become the butt of their neighborhood’s jokes for the next ten years. It’s really lousy to have to be them. Nobody in the newspaper business cares what happens to them once their story has been inked and distributed.

The folks up at the Newburyport News in Massachusetts have had a few chuckles on us as this whole thing  played out. Their editor, John Macone, went down to the Newburyport Public Library, where a volunteer found the original newspaper clipping, published in April 1879 by the Newburyport Herald.

“The news item gives a full report of the discovery of the skull in the sand dunes of our local Plum Island,” Mr. Macone wrote in an article online here. “The Long Islander republished it two months later, almost word for word….[Southold Historical Society Director Geoffrey] Fleming said it was common in those days for newspapers to republish material gathered from other newspapers.”

Indeed.

In that spirit, The Beacon reports that The Herald reported in 1879 that “on Sunday some gentlemen observed protruding from the sand a large bone. Tools were procured, and, on digging, their labors were rewarded by the discovery of a skeleton. The skull was between two and three feet wide, and they uncovered a length of backbone of over seven feet … They describe the skull in form as like that of an elephant, and the leg bone as of enormous solidity when it belonged to the animal buried there. From the condition of the bones they must have been covered for ages, as they were ready to crumble.”

From everything I’ve read about woolly mammoths, they’re well more than seven feet long, so this must have been a partial skeleton. If it was a full skeleton it would be only six inches longer than Michael Jordan is tall. And there’s no mention in any of the historic documents that the mammoth was in fact a woolly one. The “woolly” qualifier was added later by the media, which due to Chronic Hollywood Exposure Syndrome is largely unaware that there were once other kinds of mammoths.

Those bones could have easily belonged to an American Mastodon, which would have been far more likely than a mammoth to be found on the Eastern Seaboard. But the phrase “American mastodon” doesn’t have the ring to it that “woolly mammoth” does.

The folks up in Newburyport are on a hunt for the bones, which might shed some light on this controversy long after we down on Long Island cease to care about this subject.

The truth is, there is a woolly mammoth on the East End. He lives in Cutchogue. He should be editing a newspaper, but instead he’s sitting at home waiting for the latest ice age to melt. And that’s the way things are in the world brought to us by Charles Darwin. It doesn’t bode well for the future of journalism. God help us all.


Beth Young

Beth Young has been covering the East End since the 1990s. In her spare time, she runs around the block, tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

2 thoughts on “Why the newspapers think there is a woolly mammoth

  • September 6, 2013 at 12:10 pm
    Permalink

    A few more notes on the “mammoth” story:

    1. In October of 2012, Group for the East End reached out directly to the General Services Adminisration (GSA) asking about the validity of the highly unusual “mammoth find” included in the Draft Environmental Impact Statement and asked in writing that the statement be fully authenticated in the Final Environmental Impact Statement. No press was involved.

    2. The GSA subsequently affirmed its view via email about the find indicating its presumed location, and the statement remained in the Final Environmental Impact Statement. It also appears that the FEIS, incorporated the “mammoth” information into its predictive modeling for historic and archeological site assessment – so it was given substantive weight.

    3. When contacted by the press about the issue this year, we provided the email “back and forth” with GSA as well as our comment letter from 2012 (calling for attention to the claim) and urged those reporters interested to call the GSA themselves to find out more about their position. From what I can tell, GSA held to its newspaper story as its source and the press reported on that position.

    4. For our part, we welcomed the input of the historical society the folks from Newburyport and anybody else who had additional information because the claim was so unusual, and if it were valid, additional site assessment would be absolutely essential. It wasn’t an effort to stall the process of sale, which according to the GSA is still many years away.

    Just thought your readers should have the full picture.

    BD

    PS: We also noted that the find (if true) was most likely an American Mastodon, given their historic range throughout our region.

    Reply
    • September 6, 2013 at 2:16 pm
      Permalink

      Thank you for the clarifications, Bob! I should make clear the Beacon’s complaint is not with you or with the folks at GFEE.

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Please prove you're human:

%d bloggers like this: