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Curator turns to CT scanner to learn what ailed mastodon 11,000 years ago

An 11,000-year-old mastodon can't walk into the offices of a radiology group and ask for a CT scan to see what's ailing it.

But a retired curator from the Buffalo Museum of Science studying a set of mastodon bones thought running them through a CT scanner would help him understand what caused some of their unusual features.

The diagnostic equipment at Great Lakes Medical Imaging in Amherst normally provides 3-D images of human patients, not Ice Age fossils. But when Richard Laub reached out to the radiology group, officials there agreed to help him solve this scientific mystery.

"It's such a departure from what we normally do," said Amber DiNatale, clinical director for Great Lakes.

In fact, since Laub brought in his bones and bone fragments to the Great Lakes offices in January, two other researchers have come to the group with their own fossils for scans.

"It's a non-destructive way to see the inside of a specimen," Laub said.

[Photo gallery: Scanning mastodon bones for science]

Laub's visit to Great Lakes earlier this year wasn't the first time a local researcher sought the use of a high-tech imaging machine. In 2014, scientists and experts at Roswell Park Cancer Institute used a CT scanner to reveal the gender and more details about a South American mummy, believed to be hundreds of years old, that joined the Science Museum's collection around 1900.

Testing conducted three years ago determined the mummy was a girl, around 2 years old, who did not show signs of dying from disease or injury.

Mummy CT scans reveal clues to life of long-ago Peruvian child

Laub, who trained as a paleontologist, is the retired curator of geology at the Science Museum and has extensive experience working with Ice Age fossils.

The bones and bone fragments he brought to Great Lakes came from a site just north of Springville. The property owners discovered some pieces that had come to the surface while digging in their backyard in the late 1990s, and reached out to the museum to learn more.

Further excavation of the site over about 18 months revealed a partial mastodon skeleton, Laub said. It was an adult female who died in a spruce forest in the highlands of southern Erie County.

A mastodon is a large, extinct mammal that has legs shaped like columns; long, curved tusks and a flexible trunk. It is distantly related to both the better known mammoth, with which it overlapped millions of years ago, and today's elephants. Laub said the mastodon is the "third cousin" of elephants.

The Springville bones are not on display at the museum, Laub said, because many "look very scrappy." These mastodon rib bones drew Laub's curiosity, however, because unlike normal bones, they are hollow and lack that spongy substance in their core.

Laub wondered what had caused this unusual condition. At first, he attempted to slice off some wedges of bone so that he could examine them on a slide under a microscope, but the cutting process caused a distortion to the inner surface to the specimen.

He has relied on CT scans of fossils in the past, and reached out to Dr. Michael Silber, a Great Lakes founder, through a mutual friend.

"He seemed to be intrigued," Laub said.

DiNatale, the clinical director, said she was surprised when Great Lakes' CEO Sarah Glenn-Smith contacted her on Laub's behalf.

"I had to think back and think, 'What is a mastodon?' " DiNatale said.

The Great Lakes technologists arranged to examine the bones on Jan. 19, during the lunch hour, when Laub wouldn't bump up against any patient appointments.

Laub brought in perhaps 15 specimens, all wrapped up and labeled, from the museum to the group's main location on Park Club Lane in Amherst.

DiNatale said she made sure to let Laub do all of the handling of the bones. He placed them carefully, one at a time, onto the surface where a patient would lie, before it slid into the machine's scanner, which is shaped like a doughnut and spins around the bone during the scan. Each scan took no more than 60 seconds or 90 seconds, Laub said.

The scan produces cross-sectional pictures that produce a 3-D image of what's being scanned. "I like to say it's like slicing a loaf of bread," DiNatale said.

She said the machine, which can cost about $300,000 new, typically is used to take images of a patient's chest, abdomen or extremities, to look for cancer tumors or bone fractures. She said it was strange for her and the other Great Lakes staffers to see the images produced by the scan of the mastodon bone.

Laub said the CT scans gave him a full picture of the extent of the hollowness of each bone. Now he wants to show the pictures to other scientists to hash out whether disease, or something in the 11,000-year preservation process, caused the hollowing out.

After his scanning at Great Lakes, he referred William Parsons, the Gow School's senior master and a scientific illustrator who has worked for the Science Museum, to the radiology group. Parsons brought in fossilized dinosaur and crocodile eggs. They tried a CT scan first but, when those images didn't reproduce well, went with X-rays that turned out better, DiNatale said.

And an independent researcher, Brian Kuch, came in for CT scans of what Kuch thinks are a dinosaur skull and fossilized dinosaur heart, DiNatale said. The mastodon drew some staffers' interest – "Dr. Laub had quite an audience," DiNatale said – but the dinosaur fossils really caused a stir, she said.

While Laub and the other researchers appreciated Great Lakes' services, DiNatale said the group isn't switching to paleontology any time soon.

"I think we'll keep our expertise with radiology and human beings," she said with a laugh.

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