Sat. Jan 22nd, 2022

  • Scientists discovered a 3-foot-long mammoth tusk about 10,000 feet below sea level.
  • The deep sea is ideal for conserving remains, although mammoth fossils rarely end up there.
  • the tusk belongs to a young female mammoth. Researchers use it to get clues about how she lived.

To the untrained eye, it may have looked like a giant tree trunk. In fact, scientists had seen something unusual off the coast of California two years ago: a 3-foot-long mammoth toothpick.

A research team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute discovered the tusk in 2019 while exploring an underwater mountain about 10,000 feet below sea level.

Although other mammoth fossils had been picked from the ocean before, it is rare for such objects to sneak along the deep ocean floor, Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, said in a press release.

Scientists ultimately determined that the tusk belonged to a young female Colombian mammoth, possibly one who lived during the Lower Paleolithic era, which stretched over 2.7 million to 200,000 years ago. Scientists are still working to determine the exact age of the creature, along with more details about its life – including its diet and how often it reproduced.

“This is an ‘Indiana Jones’ mixed with ‘Jurassic Park’ moment,” Katie Moon, a postdoc researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told The New York Times.

The discovery could eventually signal the presence of other ancient animal fossils hidden in the deep sea.

mammoth tusk

MBARI senior researcher Steven Haddock (left), postdoc researcher at UC Santa Cruz Katie Moon (center) and paleontologist at the University of Michigan Daniel Fisher (right) are preparing to clean the large tusk in the ship’s laboratory.

Darrin Schultz © 2021 MBARI


Researchers cracked a piece of the mammoth toothpick two years ago

Scientists in Monterey Bay did not intend to encounter a mammoth tusk in 2019. At the time, the research team was traveling around the ocean in remote-controlled vehicles in search of deep-sea species.

“You start to ‘expect the unexpected’ when exploring the deep sea, but I’m still amazed that we came across the old tusk of a mammoth,” said Steven Haddock, senior researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in the press release.

At one point, the researchers decided to retrieve the tusk from the seabed, but the tip broke off and they were unable to collect the entire sample. The team later visited the site again in July to grab the rest of the artifact. This time, the soft materials attached like sponges to the remote-controlled vehicle and then gently lifted the tusk using the vehicle’s robotic arms.

The full tusk gave the researchers a much larger sample of mammoth DNA, which they used to determine its species.

Scientists believe that the Colombian mammoth was one of the largest creatures of its kind – probably the result of a cross between a woolly mammoth and another mammoth species. It probably used its tusks to protect itself and seek food when it roamed North America up to 10,000 years ago.

mammoth tusk

Daniel Fisher cuts a cut from the core of the smaller tusk fragment.

Darrin Schultz © 2021 MBARI


The cool high-pressure environment of the deep sea is ideal for conserving fossils

Scientists are now analyzing the radioisotopes of the tusk, or naturally decaying atoms, to find out how long ago the mammoth lived. Since scientists know the rate at which isotopes such as uranium and thorium decay, they can determine the age of the tusk based on how much of these isotopes are still present in the artifact.

So far, this technique suggests that the mammoth toothpick is much more than 100,000 years old.

Scientists believe the ocean is responsible for keeping the artifact in such pristine condition.

Deep sea temperatures are just above freezing – around 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit), on average. This cold climate slows down the rate of fossil decay, just as putting food in the freezer prevents it from spoiling prematurely.

Fossils also have a better chance of surviving in the deep sea’s high pressure environment – the underwater pressure in the sea’s deepest trenches is 1,100 times greater than it is at the water surface.

“If the tusk had been found on land, it would not be so straightforward to decipher its history,” Terrence Blackburn, an associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said in the press release.

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