Woman finds mastodon molar on California beach
A woman visiting a beach in central California on Memorial Day weekend did some amateur paleontology when she found the worn molar of an adult mastodon sticking out of the sand.
Mastodons, in this case the Pacific mastodon species, were a large, tusked herbivore, whose evolutionary line diverged from that of elephants around 27 million years ago. Mastodons went extinct across North America at the end of the last ice age 10,000 years ago.
Jennifer Schuh stumbled on the blackened tooth jutting out of the sand at the mouth of Aptos Creek at Rio Del Mar State Beach along the coast of Monterey Bay Friday, but did not know what it was.
“I was on one side of the creek, and this lady was talking to me on the other side and she said, ‘What’s that at your feet?’ It looked kind of weird, like burnt almost,” Ms. Schuh told The Associated Press.
When she solicited input from social media, a fossil collections adviser at the local Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History informed her that it was a mastodon tooth and asked Ms. Schuh where the tooth was.
“I practically hit the floor. It was a mastodon tooth, right in the same area where we know mastodons lived in Santa Cruz County,” the adviser, Wayne Thompson, told San Francisco’s KRON-TV.
The museum hosts two other mastodon fossils found in the area on permanent exhibit — another tooth and the skull of a juvenile found in 1980 in Aptos Creek.
Winter storms have been known to uncover fossils, and the tooth could have been washed down to the beach from higher elevations.
When folks from the museum went to find the molar themselves, it was gone, prompting their own social media solicitations in hopes of recovering the important find.
The tooth, it turns out, had been picked up by Jim Smith of nearby Aptos while he was jogging. Mr. Smith called the museum Tuesday to arrange donating the molar.
“Jim told us that he had stumbled upon it during one of his regular jogs along the beach but wasn’t sure of what he had found until he saw a picture of the tooth on the news. He was so excited to hear it was a mastodon tooth and was eager to share it with the museum,” Liz Broughton, the museum’s visitor experience manager, recounted in a statement.
The new fossilized molar will be on display from Friday to Sunday each week.
The age of the fossil find has not yet been determined, but museum officials believe it to be less than a million years old. Mastodons were extant in the area 5 million years ago to the time of their extinction.
“We can safely say this specimen would be less than 1 million years old, which is relatively new by fossil standards,” Ms. Broughton told AP.
The museum is excited to learn more about the find and thanked locals for being supportive during the brief search to recover the tooth.
“We are thrilled about this exciting discovery and the implications it holds for our understanding of ancient life in our region. We are grateful that our community has rallied behind the search for the tooth so that we may help protect and share this significant specimen with the public,” Felicia Van Stolk, the museum’s executive director, said in a statement.