© 2021 Interlochen
News and Classical Music from Northern Michigan
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Northern Michigan

Carbon Dating Reveals 10 Year Old's Discovery Is A Rare, Extinct Elk

Moehle family photo

Imagine this: you head out for a quick paddle on a small lake, someplace really close to home. And what do you discover sticking out of the muck on the lake bottom? A rack of antlers so big your first reaction is to call them “dinosaur bones.”

That’s what happened to a girl and her dad in Benzie County last Easter. Now they have test results that show they’ve likely landed on a museum piece. Evidence is very strong this is a rare example of an extinct elk that disappeared from Michigan around 1875.

“Sticks” In Icy Waters

Sonja Moehle is 10 years old and the kind of kid who’s always outside identifying birds and hunting toads and salamanders. She’s the kind of kid who would – on April 20th – canoe around a partially frozen lake with her dad.

“We were paddling out there and I looked down and I was like, ‘Dad, what’s that?’”

Dad, David Moehle, thought his daughter had spotted two sticks.

“And I was like, ‘Those don’t really look like sticks,’” Sonja tells the story.

It was easy to see the mucky bottom of the lake that day. The winds and waters were completely still, almost eerily so. And dad did spot something. He thought maybe it was a part that fell off a boat.

“He brought his fishing pole,” Sonja continues. “So he shoved it down there and he grabbed it and he pull it up. And it was this giant vertebra and we were like, ‘What?’ Crazy!”

At this point Sonja’s dad turns his attention back to those “sticks” she had first pointed out.

Jaws Dropped

“I got a hook and rope and hooked onto it, pulled it up. And it was really stuck to the bottom so I really thought it was a tree root or something to that effect,” says David.

“It was so stuck in the muck and stuff that it (the canoe) was tipping,” Sonja says.

“So I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re going to fall over!’ And it was really cold… But then it let go”

“And once it broke the surface our jaws dropped,” says David.

Credit Moehle family photo
Sonja Moehle at the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology with Biologist Phil Myers.

Sonja is five foot one and if she stands next to them, the antlers climb to her chin. David is a hunter, so he knew by sheer size they’d found something special. It’s a rack nine-points-by-eight and it seems they’ve found a complete skeleton.

A Family Investigation

The family took some of the bones down to Ann Arbor, where they met this spring with scientists at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology.

Biologist Phil Myers and Paleontologist Dan Fisher riffled through drawers filled bones, comparing museum specimens to bones from Sonja’s elk.

The Moehles would love to know all about this bull – how old it was when it died… how it died …and when. But, really, they have one big question: whether it’s from an extinct subspecies. If it is, Fischer and Myers told them it’s a “spectacular” find and something that probably deserves to be in a museum.

This week a carbon dating confirmed with near certainty that it is.

Carbon Dating Confirms Rare Find

“There’s a 97.5 percent chance that it’s 1850 or older, which would put firmly into the range of the extinct eastern elk,” says Lou Bender, who interpreted the test results for he family. He’s done extensive research on Michigan Elk. Today he’s a senior research scientist at New Mexico State University.

Credit Moehle family photo
The Moehle family spent several hours with scientists at the University of Michigan, looking through bones held in the museum and trying to identify the subspecies of Sonja's elk. The researchers recommended carbon dating or DNA testing.

  But, calling this animal extinct assumes scientists are certain the eastern elk is genetically different than elk than roam today. Bender says that’s up for debate.

“Most of those subspecies were classified based on – because he work was done in the 1600s, 1700s, 1800s – just what the animals look like. Well, nowadays most classification schemes are based upon how related they are genetically,” he says. Bender says he doesn’t know if anyone has done a DNA profile of the eastern elk. Just maybe, he says, Sonja’s elk could help answer that question.

So next the Moehles will have testing done to see if the bones still hold DNA. And suddenly this homeschool family that lives a quiet life in rural northern Michigan is excited about the prospect that they could contribute to science.

The Moehles have been paying for their research through a Kickstarter campaign