A bat, bison and mastodont battle in fair’s state mammal election

By Olivia Ober
The Statehouse File

INDIANAPOLIS – While Republicans and Democrats are battling to gain Hoosiers’ votes at the polls this November, another sort of election is taking place inside the confines of the Indiana State Fair – one that involves very different kinds of politicians.

 About the candidates:

Name: Mastodont
Age: Extinct. Lived 11,000 years ago.
Home: Indiana is the final resting place of many mastadonts and Hoosiers paleontologists are still conducting digs to search for them.
Party: Prehistoric
Info: Mastodonts (also known as mastodons) are large, tusked creatures that lived in Indiana in the Pleistocene era. The mastodont sculptures at the Indiana State Museum are a favorite of visiting children.

Name: Bison
Age: Still living in other states; last seen in Indiana in 1828
Home: Lived in and around Knox County until 1810 and Huntington County until 1828.
Party: Pioneer
Info: The bison appears on the Indiana state seal and the General Assembly considered making it the state animal in 1989. Bison created pathways during migration, and the path in Indiana is known as Buffalo Trace. Bison were hunted until nearly extinct for their hides in the 19th century. However, they are now protected from hunting in many states and provinces.

Name: Indiana Myotis or Indiana bat
Age: Alive but endangered
Home: Southern Indiana caves
Party: Modern
Info: The Indiana Myotis is an endangered species of bat that currently lives in Indiana. These bats have very specific habitats in select caves and the bark of dead trees. Human vandalism in cave environments has uprooted or killed many of the species. The Myotis is one of only two mammals described by scientists from Indiana and there is more of this bat in Indiana than in any other state.

Source: Indiana Historical Bureau
Photos: Mastodont courtesy of the Field Museum; Indiana bat by Adam Mann, Environmental Solutions and Innovations;  bison by Nicole Lawton.

These candidates are furry – or maybe it’s hairy – and they’re not going to be giving any speeches, especially not the guy who’s extinct.

The mastodont, bison, and Indiana Myotis, a species of bat, are facing off in a contest to see which should be the state mammal. The decision – which will be made by fairgoers – won’t be final. Only the General Assembly can make an official designation.

The Indiana Historical Bureau is sponsoring a mock election pitting the bison, Indiana bat and mastodont in a race to unofficially determine the state mammal. Votes can be cast at the Indiana State Fair. Photo by Suzannah Couch, TheStatehouseFile.com

Still, Indiana is one of only three states without such a designation and so the Indiana Historical Bureau decided to hold an election to determine the state’s favorite mammal.

“People write us all the time with questions,” said Paula Bongen, the bureau’s survey and repair manager. “They ask: Why are people from Indiana called Hoosiers? Why is this called Indiana? They write us asking: Why we don’t have a state animal? So we thought it would be fun to have a vote.”

The mastodont, bison and Indiana Myotis already have won their primaries – in the Prehistoric, Pioneer and Modern parities, respectively – by gaining the most votes on the Indiana Historic Bureau’s web page.

Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Politics in Fort Wayne, typically analyzes races for governor, Congress and other key political offices. But on Friday, he was willing to share his thoughts about the mammal faceoff.

Downs said the election’s outcome could be determined by the voter participation in different regions of the state.

“Although bats have solid support throughout the state, the Indiana Myotis probably will find most of its support coming from the southern part of the state where there are more caves,” Downs said.

“If the mastodont pulls off the victory, it might be due to good voter turnout from northeast Indiana,” he said. “In 1968, a mastodon (skeleton) was found a few miles south of Angola, and the mastodon is the mascot for Indiana University-Purdue University Forte Wayne.”

Fairgoers can vote through Aug. 8 by putting a bean in the jar in front of their favorite animal’s campaign poster at a table located in the Department of Natural Resources building. The final day for voting is Aug. 9 at the bureau’s booth, which will be part of Hoosier Heritage Day.

Debbie Massa casts her vote for the bison in the mock election for Indiana’s state animal being held by Indiana Historical Bureau. People can cast their votes for the bison, mastodont or bat in the DNR building at the Indiana State Fair. Photo by Suzannah Couch, TheStatehouseFile.com.

On Friday morning, a few hours after the fair opened, the bison and bat were tied for first place.

Katie James, a customer service worker in the DNR building, said staff was trying Friday to round up voters, although she’s no unbiased election worker. James said she’s voting for the bat. But her colleague, Brandy Lewis, is picking the mastodont.

Fairgoer Debbie Massa put a bean in the jar next to the bison’s poster. “It made the most sense to be the state animal,” Massa said simply.

The bison is a popular choice, said Bongen. “People often think about how it’s on the state seal,” she said.

However, Downs sees the bison as the “wildcard” in this election.

“It probably is the most recognized of the candidates,” he said. “But it doesn’t seem to have the natural constituencies the Indiana Myotis and mastodont have.”

Olivia Ober is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

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