By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer
A family on Camano Island discovered a mammoth tooth on a beach, Stanwood Camano News reported. The blast from the past found its new home when the family was out walking the beach. They confirmed what the discovery was with a museum in Seattle. Mammoths first evolved three million years ago.
According to Stanwood Camano News, a married couple on Camano Island, which is nestled in Puget Sound in Washington state, recently discovered an ancient artifact while strolling on the beach. “Marc [Root], carrying their 2-year-old son Knox in a backpack […] found what he thought was part of a large striped rock with agates embedded in it,” the article said. “It wasn’t a rock. Marc was holding a woolly mammoth tooth.”
The article said that the Root family confirmed with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle that their discovery was a mammoth tooth. Previously, a mammoth tooth was found on nearby Whidbey Island in 2018. Woolly mammoths evolved about 400,000 years ago from earlier mammoth species.
Rise of the Mammoth
“Mammoths evolved in Africa during the Pliocene and would enter Europe by about three million years ago,” said Dr. Stuart Sutherland, Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia, in a lecture for The Great Courses. “A European species called the steppe mammoth evolved in Eastern Asia, and by around 1.5 million years ago would cross the Bering Strait across Beringia when sea levels were lower than today. The Columbian mammoth would evolve from these pioneering steppe mammoths and populate an area from the northern USA to Costa Rica.”
Dr. Sutherland said that Columbian mammoths stood “about four meters at the shoulder” and weighed as much as 11 tons. This would likely make adults immune to attacks from most predators, though children and elderly mammoths may have fallen prey to wolves and large cats of the era.
They’ve been well-studied because they would often get preserved in areas like the La Brea Tar Pits, where animals such as mammoths would get stuck in asphalt pools then struggle to escape, exhausting themselves and dying of starvation.
“The corpses would attract large predators like sabretooth tigers and dire wolves, which would also become stuck—a natural predator trap,” Dr. Sutherland said.
Dr. Sutherland said that woolly mammoths evolved 400,000 years ago, crossing into North America about 100,000 years ago. Additionally, they were smaller than Columbian mammoths and were probably about the size as an African elephant.
“They were covered by coarse hair, probably thicker than that of the Columbian mammoth, and as they lived in the more northerly regions had small ears—probably an adaptation to conserve heat,” he said. “The characteristic fatty hump on the mammoth’s back may have been used as a reserve source of nutrients in the more extreme northerly environments. Incidentally, the closest living relative of mammoths is the Asian elephant, which is more closely related to the extinct mammoths than the African elephants.”
Dr. Sutherland said that the woolly mammoth and its Columbian cousin coexisted in North America. Woolly mammoths even coexisted with humans and are often featured in cave art, including in the Amazon. However, they weren’t simply kept around as pets or for good luck.
“In some areas, woolly mammoths were used by Neanderthals and Cro-Magnon people to make huts,” he said. “Likewise, the Columbian mammoth was part of the cultural landscape of North America.”
This article contains material taught by Dr. Stuart Sutherland for his course Introduction to Paleontology. Dr. Sutherland is a Professor in the Department of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at The University of British Columbia (UBC). Raised in the United Kingdom, he earned an undergraduate degree in geology from the University of Plymouth and a PhD in Geological Sciences from the University of Leicester.