Facing extinction: NJ’s mastodon fossil population needs funds to survive

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VERNON -

Few people know that tens of thousands of years ago, mastodons roamed what is now New Jersey.

Dozens of mastodon skeletons have been found all across the Garden State for over 100 years. Many of these skeletons were on display in state museums. But now a lack of funding may allow these fossils to go extinct.

A new research paper by the state Department of Environmental Protection compiles all 52 mastodon archaeological finds dating back to the early 1800s. Fossils have been found in various towns such as Cranford, Hackensack, Holmdel and Union.

One of the most famous mastodon skeletons was found in Vernon.

“The pond behind me, which is now called Mastodon Lake, is where they found a large mastodon skeleton in 1954,” says state geologist Jeff Hoffman.

That skeleton became known as Matilda. It was found as farmer Gus Ohberg was having a pond dredged. Matilda remains the most complete and best preserved mastodon skeleton ever found in New Jersey.

But anyone who wants to see the famous skeleton is out of luck at the moment, which is the crux of DEP’s new report.

Matilda was once on display at the state museum in Trenton, but has been in storage for the past 15 years and badly in need of preservation. Another skeleton found in Liberty Township in 1971 and another found in Hackensack are in similar situations.

The cost to get New Jersey's mastodons back in shape could be immense and work could take years, according the report.

“All the exhibits need to be maintained over time. And this one just wasn't, unfortunately,” says Hoffman.

The only full mastodon skeleton still on display in New Jersey is at the Rutgers Geology Museum. The Mannington mastodon was found in Salem County in 1869.

The state museum in Trenton is considering a fund raising effort to get Matilda and other mastodon displays back before the public. No plans have been announced just yet.

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