Social media leads to discovery of 5,000-year-old mastodon tooth
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
It's pretty common to find seashells or coral on the beach. Outside Santa Cruz, Calif., a tourist recently spotted something way more unusual. She snapped photos and posted them on social media.
WAYNE THOMPSON: And I saw the pictures, and I practically hit the floor.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Wayne Thompson is with the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. He says the object could easily be mistaken for a piece of burnt wood.
THOMPSON: 'Cause it was dark black on the top and kind of an amber brown on the bottom, but it doesn't look quite like a piece of firewood.
SHAPIRO: Not quite because, as Thompson could tell from the photos, it was actually a tooth - a huge mastodon molar almost 5 inches wide, with long roots extending below the chomping part.
KELLY: It is old. The last of these ice age mammoth relatives died out 10,000 years ago. Thompson rushed to the beach. But when he got there, the tooth was gone.
THOMPSON: I determined, because of the tide structure there, that it couldn't have been taken out to sea. It couldn't have been buried. So the conclusion was that somebody had taken it.
SHAPIRO: He describes what came next as a news and social media blitz to locate the tooth. And luckily, word got to the right person.
THOMPSON: Somebody called the museum and said, hey, you know, I think I have something that looks a lot like that thing I saw on the news. Can I come in and show it to you? And sure enough, it was the tooth.
KELLY: A preliminary dental exam offered some clues about the mastodon that once chewed with this tooth.
THOMPSON: The top of the molar - the enamel part and the dentine is highly eroded, indicating that this particular individual was an adult, probably between 30 and 40 years old.
KELLY: Thompson says radiocarbon dating could narrow down when this mastodon lived, and examining wear and tear on the tooth's surface might reveal what it liked to eat.
SHAPIRO: By the way, this is not the first time mastodons have washed up in the area. In the early 1980s, Thompson spent two years piecing together a skull that a teenager found in a nearby creek. He says dozens of locals are now calling in with more leads.
THOMPSON: This one woman contacted me and said, you know, I have some pictures of this thing I found on the beach. It looks like it might be a bone. And it's really, really, really big. And sure enough, it's the leg bone of a mammoth or a mastodon. So we'll be studying that specimen and getting it to the museum soon.
KELLY: The museum was already planning an exhibit on local mammoths and mastodons. With any luck, it's about to get bigger.
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