In the Beneski Museum of Natural History—where students refer to the giant mammoth skeleton on permanent display as “Bebu,” in tribute—the guides were particularly excited to hear about the College’s new mascot.
So excited, in fact, that Ian Petty ‘19, a geology major, decided to throw a party of sorts in the mascot’s honor. He invited other students to gather in the museum on a recent Friday and draw or construct paper “Bebu” tributes.
“When the mammoth became our mascot, a couple people said that should be the name,” he said of the moniker, an abbreviated version of Beneski Building. “Now I’m trying to make that happen. It’s not official.”
Although it has been used for mammoth mascots elsewhere, “Woolly” would not be a good name for the Beneski’s skeleton, Petty explained. That’s because the bones are of a Columbian mammoth, and Columbian mammoths were not particularly woolly.
Pressed for more details, Petty bowed out with a laugh. “Now I’ve gotten in the only knowledge I know and will defer to Matthew,” he said.
Petty gestured across the room to C. Matthew Inabinett ’18, the museum’s resident expert, the person who even museum educator Fred Venne consults on such matters. At this moment, Inabinett was working on what looked to be a scientific rendering of a Columbian mammoth. Asked to assume his role as mammoth guide, Inabinett adjusted his tweed blazer and bow tie.
The Beneski’s mammoth, he explained, had died at age 46, a big, dominant male in the prime of his life. (A visiting paleontologist had once estimated this age by counting the enamel bands on the tusks.) Since mammoths, like elephants, were matriarchal, Bebu likely lived alone. He could have lived up to 80 years—if he’d been lucky.
“Ours was not lucky. He died in a cypress swamp,” Inabinett said. “He went down to a swampy area and started to sink until his trunk was under, and then he couldn’t breathe.”
Florida, where the mammoth lived, was then wide and warm, full of fauna such as mastodons and sabertooth cats (some of which also drowned, and were later discovered, in the same swamp).
Inabinett admitted that he’s actually more interested in dinosaurs, but he has a soft spot for any large creature, particularly elephants and their extinct relatives. A modern male elephant, he explained, is about three feet shorter and half the weight of Amherst’s Columbian mammoth, although both had about the same gestation period (22 months) and were grazers, strolling quietly through the landscape.
Mammoths “would have had padded feet like elephants today, so they walked up on their toes,” he said, standing up on the toes of his wingtips to demonstrate. “They were capable of being quite stealthy for something that can weigh over six tons.”
The Amherst mammoth would have stood 13 feet tall and weighed between 12 and 13 tons, Inabinett continued, including about 100 pounds of spiraling tusks. (Tusks on females were smaller and straighter.)
“The skeleton is 85 percent real fossils, but the tusks on the skeleton are not real; they’re casts,” Inabinett said of the museum’s prize exhibit. “You can see one of the real tusks on display. The other one is in collections.”
Mammoth tusks were used for swinging, smashing, digging and shoving, rather than stabbing. Inabinett relayed one tragic case of two Columbian mammoths that locked tusks in a fight and died trying to separate, crushing a particularly unfortunate coyote when they fell.
Asked why he’s so knowledgeable about the Amherst mammoth, Inabinett shrugged.
“It’s my job,” he said. “I work here.”