A gigantic tooth that once belonged to an ancient mastodon was discovered, lost and then found again over Memorial Day weekend, after a tourist saw and photographed it on a California beach without realizing what it was.
The tourist, whom officials described as a visitor with ties to the Santa Cruz area, originally spotted the rare fossil at Rio Del Mar beach last Friday. She posted a photo of the tooth, which measured 1 foot long, according to the news station KRON-TV, to social media where it was then recognized by Wayne Thompson, the paleontology collections advisor at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
“This is (a) … molar tooth of the Pacific Mastodon Mammut pacificus, and an extremely important find. Give me a call when you get a chance,” Thompson wrote in response to her social media post, the museum said in a news release.
Dating back to the Ice Age, mastodons refer to a group of giant elephant-like species, including the mammoth, that became extinct around 10,000 years ago. Remains of the ancient creature have been found in Santa Cruz before.
When Thompson returned to the spot on the beach where the tourist had originally seen the massive tooth, it had vanished. But the fossil was ultimately located again after a public call from the natural history museum asked community members for help in their search to recover it.
“Only two other specimens of the Pacific mastodon have been recorded locally, both of which are held in our collections. This new discovery is of great significance for our developing understanding of life in the area during the last ice age,” the museum wrote in a Facebook post shared on Monday.
Jim Smith, a local resident who the museum said jogs regularly on Rio Del Mar beach, came across the tooth during a run the next morning. Smith called the museum to report his discovery after seeing images of the fossil on the news, officials said.
“I was so excited to get that call,” said Liz Broughton, a visitor experience manager at the museum, in a statement. “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.”
The museum said it is “excited to support the curation and care of this specimen” and intends to make the tooth available for scientific study in addition to putting it on display in an exhibit. The other two mastodon remnants currently on display at the Santa Cruz history museum are a skull and another tooth. Thompson excavated the skull after it was found by a teenager in Aptos Creek in 1980, and spent years repairing it, according to the museum.