SANTA CRUZ, Calif. (KRON) — Paleontologists are busy this Memorial Day weekend trying to find a tooth in Santa Cruz County that dates back to the Ice Ages.
An unknown beach-goer picked up a giant mastodon tooth that first surfaced on an Aptos beach Friday. Now scientists are hoping that the scientifically significant tooth will be returned to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History where it can be studied and displayed for the public as a piece of ancient history.
The 1-foot-long tooth was originally spotted by a beach-goer strolling through the sand near Aptos Creek on Rio Del Mar Beach. “She didn’t know what it was, the importance of it. It looks like a piece of old firewood. So she left it there. It’s understandable,” said Wayne Thompson, a paleontology collections advisor for the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
The woman was curious enough to snap several closeup photographs of the strange object in the sand, post them on Facebook, and ask if anyone knew what it could be.
“People said ‘woah that looks like a giant tooth.’ I practically hit the floor. It was a mastodon tooth, right in the same area where we know mastodons lived in Santa Cruz County,” Thompson said. The tooth once belonged to an extinct Pacific Mastodon.
Thompson contacted the woman on Saturday and she dashed back to the beach to look for it. “It wasn’t there. It’s MIA right now,” Thompson told KRON4 on Monday.
Many people visited Rio Del Mar beach for the holiday weekend, and a second beach-goer likely took the tooth, Thompson said. High tide was not high enough Friday night for ocean waves to carry the object away. Searches on Sunday didn’t turn up anything buried in the sand, either.
The tooth was up “so high on the beach in the dry sand the only option is somebody took it. They might not know what it is, and think it’s an old piece of petrified wood,” Thompson said.
The first mastodon ever discovered in Santa Cruz County was found more than 40 years ago in Aptos Creek, just upstream from the tooth. In 1980, Jim Stanton was only 16 years old when he found a juvenile mastodon skull in the creek. The skull was determined to be a specimen of a Pacific Mastodon.
After paleontologists excavated the skull, it took Thompson two years to meticulously put the skull back together at the museum. The skull is currently on permanent exhibit at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
The most recently-discovered mastodon tooth was from an adult — not a juvenile — giving local scientists their first evidence that a herd of mastodon likely roamed through this area during the Ice Ages.
“The skull found 40 years ago had sutures in the bones which were not completely fused, meaning that it was a juvenile. The tooth that was found at the mouth of Aptos Creek was significantly worn and was from an older adult probably in their 30s or 40s,” Thompson said.
Paleontologists are hoping that whoever has the tooth will turn the ancient object in to the museum. Thompson emphasized, “It’s super, super, super important for understanding elephant life in Santa Cruz County during the last Ice Age. There are only a few mammoth specimens, and mammoths are more common than mastodons. Aptos was a popular destination for Ice Age proboscideans,” he told KRON4. “It’s a piece of Santa Cruz history.”
Based on carbon 14 testing, scientists with Harvard University estimate that Santa Cruz County’s mastodons were among the last before the species Mammut pacificus went extinct about 5,000 years ago.
The Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is located above Seabright Beach at 1305 East Cliff Drive in Santa Cruz. You can call the museum at 831-420–6115 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org.