Northwestern: a Prehistory

    Illustration by Gus Wezerek/North by Northwestern

    Our campus isn’t exactly a haven for wildlife. Even the most intrepid explorers will find little more than squirrels and songbirds – with perhaps a skunk or opossum thrown in for good measure. Millions of years ago, however, this area was teeming with the kind of beasts you may have doodled in your elementary school notebook. Take a look at the prehistoric menagerie below, and imagine the fossilized footprints you may be following during your next walk to class.

    American mastodon

    This behemoth could be found roaming the Midwest from about 3.75 million to 11,000 years ago. Measuring in at eight to ten feet tall at the shoulder and weighing up to six tons – with tusks that reached 16 feet in length – mastodons likely traveled in herds and ate vegetation from shrubs and trees. While those long tusks are thought to have helped in stripping leaves and bark, scars found on tusks have led scientists to believe that males fought one another for females during mating season. Illinois is home to more than 30 mastodon fossil sites.

    Giant ground sloth

    The ground sloth is closely related to the modern two- and three-toed sloths – but don’t hold its slow cousins against it. This herbivore was the size of an ox, and could stand on its hind legs and use its giant front claws to tear food from trees. A species commonly found in the Midwest, Jefferson’s ground sloth, is named after founding father Thomas Jefferson. After a colonel sent him some newly found foot fossils from the creature, then-Vice President Jefferson declared they were the remains of a new species of lion and warned explorers like Lewis and Clark to watch out for living specimens.

    Saber-toothed cat

    Imagine how badass Willie would look if he were modeled after one of these. Sabertooths were about the size of modern African lions, but featured massive 7-inch canine teeth. These choppers came in handy when taking down prey such as bison, elk, horses and the aforementioned ground sloths. Unfortunately for wildlife biologists, but fortunately for campus safety, sabertooths have been extinct for about 11,000 years.


    Ever been freaked out by a big bug in your dorm room? Arthropleura is a relative of the modern centipede and millipede that grew up to ten feet long – it’s the largest known land invertebrate of all time. There is some debate among scientists about whether the creature ate meat or plants, but many believe it spent at least part of its time in the water. Arthropleura lived from about 340 to 280 million years ago, back when this area was likely covered in rainforest.

    Giant beaver

    The giant beaver is, well, exactly what it sounds like. These massive rodents were about eight feet long and weighed in at between 200 and 300 pounds. Evidence seems to point to them building supersized dams, meaning there was probably an even better lakefill a million years ago. While giant beaver fossils were first discovered in a swamp in Ohio, new discoveries have been especially common in Illinois.


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