A woman who was enjoying a walk on a beach in California during the Memorial Day weekend made an unexpected discovery: a fossilized tooth from an ancient mastodon.
The tooth, which was about a foot long (.30-meter), was partially exposed in the sand near Aptos Creek on Rio Del Mar State Beach, in Santa Cruz County on California’s central coast.
“I saw something that looked kind of odd, like it was burnt or something,” said Jennifer Schuh, who found the tooth on Friday. She posted some photos of it on Facebook, hoping to identify it.
Wayne Thompson, paleontology collections advisor for the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, saw her post and confirmed that it was a worn molar from an adult Pacific mastodon, an extinct relative of elephants.
However, when they returned to the beach to retrieve the tooth, it had disappeared.
They searched for it over the weekend, but couldn’t find it. Thompson then launched a social media campaign to locate the fossil, which attracted international attention.
On Tuesday, he received a call from Jim Smith of Aptos, who said he had stumbled upon the tooth during his regular jog along the beach. He recognized it from the news and decided to donate it to the museum.
The museum will display the tooth from Friday to Sunday.
The exact age of the tooth is unknown. Mastodons generally lived in California from about 5 million to 10,000 years ago, according to a museum blog.
“This specimen would be less than 1 million years old, which is relatively ‘new’ by fossil standards,” said Liz Broughton, the museum’s visitor experience manager.
Broughton said that winter storms often reveal fossils in the area and that the tooth may have been washed down from higher up.
Schuh said she was happy that her find could contribute to the scientific knowledge of the area’s ancient history. She didn’t keep the tooth, but she ordered herself a replica mastodon tooth necklace online.
“It was amazing to touch something from history,” she said.
This is only the third recorded mastodon fossil found locally. The museum also has another tooth and a skull that was found by a teenager in 1980. It was also found in Aptos Creek.
“We are thrilled about this exciting discovery and the implications it holds for our understanding of ancient life in our region,” said Felicia B. Van Stolk, museum executive director.