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Did you know Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin studied fossil bones from Big Bone Lick?

Big Bone Lick located in Boone County, northern Kentucky, is one of the most famous paleontological sites in North America. Throughout the mid 1700's vast quantities of bones were collected from the area and transported to museums throughout the world. In fact, the lick may be more famous for the scientists who studied the bones, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, than for the bones themselves. In 1807, Captain William Clark was commissioned by President Thomas Jefferson to excavate bones from Big Bone Lick for scientific study (Jillson, 1936). This made Big Bone Lick the first official paleontological collecting site in North America . Bones from this expedition made their way to museums throughout the world, and into Jefferson's home Monticello, in Virginia, where they can still be viewed today. The discovery of "elephant" bones at the lick was also one of the reasons that Thomas Jefferson sent explorers westward beyond the wilds of Kentucky, in the hopes that elephants and other species of animals that had not been sighted in the original 13 states might be discovered in the great wilderness west of the Appalachian mountains.

Because the bones from Big Bone Lick were different than those of modern elephants, Benjamin Franklin and other scientists began asking questions about changes that must have happened in the Earth's past, and about ancient animals that no longer existed, and had become extinct. A French scientist, Louis-Jean-Marie Daubenton (1716-1800) demonstrated that the thigh bone of a fossil elephant from Big Bone Lick was essentially the same as the thigh bone of fossil elephant bones from Siberia, and both were the similar to the thigh bone of a modern elephant. However, the teeth of the fossil elephants were different from the modern elephant and might be those of a hippopotamus. The British anatomist, William Hunter (1718-1783) argued that the bones and teeth belonged to a single animal, which he called the "unknown American." He envisioned the animal as having the bones of an elephant and the teeth of a carnivore (Benton, 1991). Benjamin Franklin noted that the teeth were probably not those of a carnivore, but a plant eater. Significantly, both noted the bones belonged to an animal that had become extinct. From these ideas, came the official designation of the bones as belonging to mammoths and mastodons; two extinct types of elephants.

       There is a common misconception that the bones from Big Bone Lick are the bones of dinosaurs. This is not true. The bones from the lick are fossils of mammals that lived during the Pleistocene Epoch, often called the Ice Ages, and are much younger than the dinosaurs. In all, 22 distinct species of Pleistocene mammals were reported in the early digs at Big Bone Lick (Jillson, 1968). However, subsequent expeditions by the University of Nebraska in cooperation with the Kentucky Department of Parks during the mid-1960's could only confirm 10 of these species. Most of the bones collected during the 1960's remain in a Nebraska paleontological warehouse, but some are housed in the small museum at the Big Bone Lick State Park <link to address on the education information source page>, in Boone County, in northern Kentucky, and similar bones can be seen at the Cincinnati Museum of Natural History an hour to the north. The most famous bones belong to two types of Ice Age elephants, mastodons and mammoths. Life-size statues of the ice-age mammals can be seen at the Park.

References that contain information about Big Bone Lick and Ice Age mammals.