Giant 100,000-Year-Old Mammoth Tusk Recovered From the Deep Sea

Although paleontologists have recovered a relatively large number of mammoth remains, not many have originated in the ocean. And far fewer from the ocean’s depths. Now, however, an interdisciplinary team of scientists has described a mammoth tusk that turned up at a depth of 10,000 feet off the California coast. And the tusk is likely more than 100,000 years old.

Gizmodo reported on the deep-sea mammoth tusk, which marine biologist Steven Haddock and ROV pilot Randy Prickett spotted in 2019. Haddock and Prickett were aboard the R/V Western Flyer, a research vessel the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute ( MBARI) operates, when they eyed the three-foot-long tusk.

A team of scientists studying a tusk that was pulled from a depth of over 10,000 feet.
Darrin Schultz/MBARI 2021

“You start to ‘expect the unexpected’ when exploring the deep sea, but I’m still stunned that we came upon the ancient tusk of a mammoth,” Haddock said in an MBARI press release. “Specimens like this present a rare opportunity to paint a picture both of an animal that used to be alive and of the environment in which it lived,” University of Santa Cruz Paleogenomics Lab lead Beth Shapiro added. Shapiro and her colleagues plan to sequence the ancient DNA from the tusk; gleaning information that could help illuminate how mammoths colonized North America.

The researchers say the tusk is from a Columbian mammoth, or Mammuthus columbi. For reference, the National Park Service says the largest Columbian mammoths stood at over 14 feet tall. And weighed more than 22,000 pounds. Incredibly—almost unbelievably—Columbian mammoths also had tusks that could grow up to 16 feet long themselves. (We had to triple check that number.)

A computer illustration of what Columbian mammoths, like the one found off the coast of California in 2019, probably looked like.
National Park Service

“This specimen’s deep-sea preservational environment is different from almost anything we have seen elsewhere,” University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher added in the press release. “Other mammoths have been retrieved from the ocean, but generally not from depths of more than a few tens of meters.”

The scientists say the specimen is at least 100,000 years old; an estimation they based on the radioactive decay of certain isotopes in the tusk. If they had found it on land, the team says “deciphering its history” would’ve been more difficult. Although what we’d really like to know is why were the mammoth remains there in the deep ocean? Obviously some area the mammoth lived in probably flooded after it died, but maybe not? We could imagine a mammoth thinking “I’ve made a huge mistake” as ocean currents swept it out to its demise.

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