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Social media leads to discovery of 5,000-year-old mastodon tooth


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.


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.

(SOUNDBITE OF FUGEES SONG, "READY OR NOT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.