Allow us to begin by saying that we don’t know exactly what is in your bag. This is a Citizen Science Research project, not a laboratory exercise. This research is an open-ended, educational journey into discovering New York’s Ice Age past (late Pleistocene, 10,000-14,000 year ago). As participants you will experience what it is like to do scientific research as you look through the matrix and make observations. Through the evidence you find you can reconstruct the Pleistocene environment where this animal roamed, and the results will also help to create a Pleistocene reference collection at the Paleontological Research Institution (PRI) for other researchers to further study.

The only requirements to participate is that you are a careful, observant researcher, that you return all materials — matrix and sorted findings — to PRI, and upload your results to the Mastodon Matrix Project™ (MMP) website (http://bit.ly/matrixworksheet). Also important to the project are your opinions and suggestions. A link to an evaluation can also be found on the MMP website, and we strongly encourage participants to give us their feedback via this online form.

Our Big Ideas for this project are:

  • The public can deepen understandings of the processes of science by participating in specially designed research projects;
  • Inquiry-based, hands-on projects can facilitate the understanding of how we know what we know about past environments;
  • Scientific research can benefit by the public being involved in data collecting and processing.

The following pages contain basic instructions to guide your exploration of the matrix collected from around the bones of the Hyde Park Mastodon. In short, we are asking you to sort organic (once living) from inorganic (never living) things, lithic (rock) from non-lithic things, to sort the things you find into different categories, and to document anything that appears interesting or extraordinary to you. We also ask that you return all materials to PRI.

If you have any questions along the way, or would like other resources, please contact us at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Contributions to the project are greatly appreciated, as it is currently funded by individual, private donations. To make a tax-deductible donation, please go here.

Remember, by participating in this project you are playing an important role in an actual scientific study. Thank you for your help in researching the Pleistocene, and we hope you enjoy your experience!

Carlyn S. Buckler, PhD
Manager, Mastodon Matrix Project

PRI logo

Matrix Instructions

You have received a bag of “matrix” sediment from a mastodon site in Dutchess County, New York. Everything in the bag is at least 9,000 years old, though some of the twigs, leaves and shells may not look very old. They have been well preserved by being buried in an acidic bog since the Pleistocene. We have found that a kilogram of matrix will keep 20-25 participants busy for 3 sessions of about 30 minutes each. You are encouraged to take more time if required, or to include more participants. In your bag there is likely to be a mixture of peat — which is brown, organically rich material — and marl — clay-like material containing small shells.

Your goal is to reconstruct the Hyde Park, NY environment of 10,000-14,000 years ago, during the late Pleistocene. Making observations as to the look, color, size and shape of the specimens you find can tell us much about this past environment. For example, observing the size, color and shape of rocks can tell you something about where they might have come from. Are they small and smooth, with flakes of granite or quartz? This may indicate rocks that have been moved over long distances by glaciers. Are they jagged, and dark gray? This could be shale, a flakey sedimentary rock that can have numerous embedded fossils.

Read through the entire document before you start — all three sessions. This will give you an idea where you are headed, and what resources you will need. You may wish to use the pictures and resource we have included with your order, and we encourage the use of additional resources from the web or other print material.

All findings must be uploaded to a Matrix Worksheet, found online at http://bit.ly/matrixworksheet. You may also record your work on a printed copy of the worksheet, then upload your results onto the website.

Session 1: Overview and Gross Classification of Plants and Animals

Required Supplies: Matrix Worksheet(s) (either online at http://bit.ly/matrixworksheet, or a printed copy of the online page), small sealable baggies; paper plates; spoons and toothpicks; hand-held magnifying lens(es); one or more embroidery hoops with a piece of scrim (or cheesecloth, or other gauzy-like material) or a clean fine mesh grease splatter screen; jars with wide mouths and tight fitting lids (half-pint, wide mouth canning jars works perfectly for this), and a scale (preferably a beam balance scale, accurate to at least 1/10 of a gram).

Recommended Supplies: a low-power microscope, newspaper or butcher paper

Separate into groups of 3-5 participants. Place a small handful of matrix on paper plates and distribute to groups along with toothpicks and magnifying lenses. The peat (brown material) may be gently broken up with your fingers — or poked apart with toothpicks — and looked through. The marl (gray clay-like material) will have visible shells that should be picked out with spoons. The shells are very delicate, so try to be as careful as possible when extracting them. You will be sorting the material into 4 jars, labeled as follows:

  • “Plant” (including wood, cones, fibers, charcoal and leaves)
  • “Rocks”
  • “Animal” (including all shells, “hairs”, etc.)
  • “???” (i.e., “Gee! This looks cool, but I have no idea what it is!”)

Examine small amounts (1-2 tablespoons) of matrix at a time, using the magnifying lens as appropriate. What do you see?

What do these findings tell you about this environment during the late Pleistocene? Record your findings on the Matrix Worksheet.

For example: Plant Material. Examine the plant material in your matrix. Take measurements of the twigs and record your findings on the Matrix Worksheet. You may find a group of twigs of similar length (0.5 in p;mdash; 1.5 in). Some of these may be crushed at one end and broken on the other. We think that mastodons ate spruce twigs this way, grabbing the short green twigs and breaking them off. This group of twigs could have passed through the stomach and intestines of a mastodon.

Collect all the separated plant material and place into individually marked (e.g., “wood/twigs”, “cones”, “leaves”, “seeds”, etc.) sealable baggies to be return to PRI.

Using these same principles of observing, sorting, measuring and recording what you find, record all animal remains and place in individually marked sealable baggies (“animal teeth”, “shells”, “hair”, etc.) to return to PRI.

Mastodon skeleton

Session 2: Rock Material and Marl

Requires Supplies: water to wash rocks, old toothbrush(es), drying towels, coffee filters, a colander or funnel, magnifying len(es), small plastic sealable baggies.

Recommended Supplies: beam scale.

  • Take chunks of marl and put then in a glass jar filled with water to about ?” from the top. Place the lid on tightly and set aside, swirling the mixture gently every now and then until the mixture has entirely fallen apart.
  • Meanwhile, separate the rocks from your sample into three piles: 2-8mm, 8-32mm, >32mm.
  • Wash the rocks off to see the colors — this can be done either under a faucet, or, especially for smaller gravel, by placing the rocks in a coffee filter and letting water filter through. Dry this overnight and examine the contents with a magnifying glass.
  • Some of the things you might find: Looking at the color, size and shape of a rock can tell you much about the environment — do you have glacial erratics? Shale? Limestone? The size of the rocks can tell you the strength of water flow that must have been necessary to carry them to this location, or perhaps if they were deposited by glaciers.
  • Black shiny rocks are probably chert. They are found today in limestone layers between Rochester and Albany, NY. They were carried south to Dutchess County (where Hyde Park NY is) by glaciers. Early peoples in North America used chert to make knives and other tools. Look closely at the edges of these rocks; you may find possible signs of being “worked” by early Native Americans.
  • Rocks with colors of red, white, etc. were also carried by glaciers to Dutchess County. Many are igneous or metamorphic rocks, which are common in Canada and the Adirondack Mountains. These rocks are called “glacial erratics” and can tell us the exact path the glacier took on its way from Canada to Dutchess County. Categorize your rocks and place them in labeled bags to send back to PRI.
  • When the marl in the jar is completely separated, pour it through the scrim-lined embroidery hoop or fine-mesh screen. Dry the results on paper, examine and catalog. Put your findings in marked sealable baggies for return to PRI.
  • Remember that jar labeled “???” ? Take the contents and use some of the techniques above to see if you can further identify what you have.

Comparison of molars

Mastodon (left) vs Mammoth (right) Molars

Session 3: Marl and The Big Picture

Required Supplies: A bowl of water, a spoon, some coffee filters, colander or funnels, drying towels, paper plates.

Recommended Supplies: Small bottles (e.g., small pill bottles, film canisters, etc.) to protect small or delicate items; black plastic plates (easier to see small light-colored items, such as snails and clams, against black).

  • Take about a half teaspoon of the leftover matrix and put it in the bowl of water. The sediment and only bone or ivory, will sink; insect fossils, hair and other organic material will float. Use a spoon to skim off the top and place on a plate. Let this dry and examine with a magnifying lens. Place all interesting material — seeds, pollen, hair, small shells, insect parts, etc. — into containers to send back to PRI.
  • Treat the remaining matrix in this manner.
  • When the entire matrix has been treated, pour the water through a coffee filter, let the material at the bottom of the filter dry and examine with a magnifying lens. Look for brown-colored pieces of bone and creamy-colored pieces of tusk (ivory). Bag your discoveries for return to PRI.
  • Finally, The Big Picture! What Was Hyde Park, NY like in the late Pleistocene? Be the Paleontologist. Take all your results — your studies of the types of rocks, plants, animals, etc. — and create a landscape of the environment that this animal lived in some 12,000 years ago. Many groups have done murals, written descriptions, created a “Pleistocene Newspaper” with articles about, for example, “A day in the life of a mastodon” — what did a mastodon see in this environment? What flora and fauna did mastodons interact with in their environment? Earth system interactions can also be discussed; weather conditions for the time, types of flora and fauna discovered and how they interacted with their environments, wet vs. dry habitats, climate change, etc. We would love to see your projects!
  • Please finish uploading all data to the Matrix Worksheet, and also please fill out the evaluation — Your Opinion Matters to Us!

Returning your Matrix and Findings

Again, we thank you very much for participating in the Mastodon Matrix Project™. Your contribution to this project helps researchers refine our understanding of the Pleistocene by the creation of this reference collection, and also public understanding of the process of science and how we know what we know about past environments. Please mail your material in the original box, which is designed to protect samples and is also reusable by the Project. Do send us any pictures, videos, writings, etc. that you or your group have done with respect to the Project.

Please send to us ALL material; including all sorted material (bones, hairs twigs, rocks, insect parts, etc.), and any leftover matrix, dirt, etc.

Mail to:
Mastodon Matrix Project at PRI
1259 Trumansburg Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850