Priscilla, queen of the paleo hall: Our mastodon has a story worthy of the silver screen

Well, “queen” might be inappropriate. Priscilla was actually a boy, and only so-named because her enormous ribs reminded the diver who discovered her of his childhood pet pig, Priscilla.

(You can’t make this stuff up.)

Priscilla in Black Hills

Priscilla, the 12-foot-tall mastodon cast who will be joining more than 60 other new mounts in our new paleontology hall this summer, was discovered in 1968 by diver, occasional T.V. repairman and recreational paleontologist Don Serbousek. Called “Priscilla of Aucilla” for his resting place in North Florida’s Aucilla River, Priscilla is among the largest mastodons yet discovered in North America.

Says Associate Curator of Paleontology David Temple:

“The girth of this animal brought back a childhood memory, and a good childhood memory. [Serbousek] grew up on a farm, and they had a litter of piglets. There were one too many piglets, and he loved this piglet so much he wanted to keep it as a pet, and so he saved the piglet and named it Priscilla.

“From there the piglet turned from being a runt until finally it became a huge sow – one of the biggest ones they’d ever had. And so the wide girth of the mastodon reminded [Serbousek] of his beloved pet pig, Priscilla. That’s how this animal got its gender-confused name.”

Priscilla in Black Hills

Although the cause of Priscilla’s death can only be speculated — it’s been suggested that human hunters may have driven him into a sinkhole — Priscilla was near the end of his natural life, as evidenced by arthritis in his backbone and the fact that his jaw contained its final set of teeth.

Priscilla roamed the earth some 13,000 years ago, and was preserved nearly completely 22 feet underwater in an isolated stretch of the Aucilla River called “Little River”— just outside Tallahassee. After three years of weekend excavation trips lead by Serbousek and his cohorts, Priscilla was finally freed from the riverbed. Eventually, museum-grade reproductions were cast of his bones, the clones of which have been displayed across the U.S.

Priscilla’s original bones reside at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, Fla., but you can enjoy the massive, majestic mastodon right here in Houston at HMNS.

For more information on our new Hall of Paleontology, open to the public June 2, click here.