science

Experts discover three-foot mammoth tusk 10,000 feet below the ocean surface off California coast


Scientists have confirmed that an ‘ancient’ tusk recovered 10,000 feet below the ocean surface does belong to a young mammoth.

A team of researchers from UC Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and University of Michigan were traversing the sea floor about 185 miles off the California coast, near Monterey in 2019, when they spotted what looked like an elephant’s tusk and picked up a small fragment.

They returned in July 2021 to get the entire specimen and after further examination, they have determined the three-foot long tusk, ‘uniquely’ preserved by the cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea, belongs to a Columbian mammoth.

At this time, it’s unclear how old the tusk is, but Dr Terrence Blackburn, a researcher at UC Santa Cruz, told the New York Times it could be more than 100,000 years old. 

Experts confirmed an 'ancient' tusk recovered 10,000 feet below the ocean belongs to a Columbian mammoth

Experts confirmed an ‘ancient’ tusk recovered 10,000 feet below the ocean belongs to a Columbian mammoth

The three-foot long tusk was 'uniquely' preserved by the cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea, experts said

The three-foot long tusk was ‘uniquely’ preserved by the cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea, experts said

The tusk was first spotted about 185 miles off the California coast, near Monterey in 2019

The tusk was first spotted about 185 miles off the California coast, near Monterey in 2019

Blackburn’s lab is analyzing the tusk using CT scans, a method that will not only reveal the animal’s age, but the full three-dimensional internal structure of the tusk and other information as well.

‘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,’ UC Santa Cruz professor Beth Shapiro said in a statement

‘Mammoth remains from continental North America are particularly rare, and so we expect that DNA from this tusk will go far to refine what we know about mammoths in this part of the world.’ 

It's likely that the tusk belonged to a young female mammoth, as Katherine Moon (left), a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro's lab, took DNA evidence from the tip that was first discovered in 2019

It’s likely that the tusk belonged to a young female mammoth, as Katherine Moon (left), a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro’s lab, took DNA evidence from the tip that was first discovered in 2019

It’s likely that the tusk belonged to a young female mammoth, the Times reported, as Katherine Moon, a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro’s lab, took DNA evidence from the tip that was first discovered in 2019.

At this point, researchers are unsure how the tusk made its way to the bottom of the ocean floor, even though the animal died on land.

The tusk was initially retrieved by a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) named Doc Ricketts.

When the researchers went back to the tusk in July, they attached household sponges and plastic fingers to the end of the ROV’s arms to make it easier to pick up.

They also took photos and videos to create a 3-D model in case it broke during recovery.

‘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,’ senior scientist Steven Haddock said in the statement. 

‘We are grateful to have a multidisciplinary team analyzing this remarkable specimen, including a geochronologist, oceanographers, and paleogenomicists from UCSC and paleontologists at the University of Michigan. 

‘Our work examining this exciting discovery is just beginning and we look forward to sharing more information in the future.’ 

It's unclear how old the tusk is, but it could be more than 100,000 years old

It’s unclear how old the tusk is, but it could be more than 100,000 years old

COLUMBIAN MAMMOTHS

A 1909 illustration of Columbian mammoths by Charles R. Knight

A 1909 illustration of Columbian mammoths by Charles R. Knight

Columbian mammoths had very little fur, unlike their woolly cousins which lived in frigid tundra.

The giants were up to 15 feet tall, weighed up to 22,000 pounds and had enormous tusks up to 16 feet long. They also had an estimated lifespan of around 65 years.

They are one of the last lineages of mammoth to go extinct in the world and were wiped out around 12,000 years ago.

The Columbian mammoth inhabited North America as far north as the northern US and as far south as Costa Rica.

Mammoth tusks over 100,000 years old are ‘extremely rare,’ Dick Mol, a paleontologist with the Historyland museum, told the Times. 

However, the tusk was covered in a thick layer of iron-manganese crust, which is abundant in the deep sea and likely suggests it has been there for at least a few thousand years.

Approximately 200,00 years ago, the Earth went through a glacial period, with mankind’s ancestors migrating from Africa. It’s possible the mammoths also migrated out of Africa, but it’s unclear how they arrived.  

‘We don’t really know much of anything about what was happening during that time period,’ University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher told the Times. 

‘We don’t have access to a lot of specimens from this time period and that’s due in large part to the fact that getting access to sediments of this age is difficult.’  

‘This specimen’s deep-sea preservational environment is different from almost anything we have seen elsewhere,’ added Fisher, who specializes in the study of mammoths and mastodons, in the statement. 

‘Other mammoths have been retrieved from oceans, but generally not from depths of more than a few tens of meters.’  

Nonetheless, the researchers are excited by the discovery and the possibilities it brings as it pertains to learning more about the age of the animal and how it lived.     

‘We’re all incredibly excited,’ Moon told the Times. ‘This is an Indiana Jones mixed with Jurassic Park moment.’ 

Lesser known than their famous ancestors, the woolly mammoths (pictured), Columbian mammoths were created after woolly mammoths bred with Krestovka mammoths in North America

Lesser known than their famous ancestors, the woolly mammoths (pictured), Columbian mammoths were created after woolly mammoths bred with Krestovka mammoths in North America

Lesser known than their famous ancestors, the woolly mammoths, Columbian mammoths were created after woolly mammoths bred with Krestovka mammoths in North America.

It’s unclear when they first appeared on Earth, but a study published in February suggested the ‘hybridization … took place approximately 420,000 years ago.’

Around one million years ago there were no woolly or Columbian mammoths, as they had not yet evolved. 

Roughly half of the Columbian mammoth’s genome came from the Krestovka mammoth and the other half from the woolly mammoth. 

COULD WE RESURRECT MAMMOTHS?

Male woolly mammoths were around 12 feet (3.5m) tall, while the females were slightly smaller.

They had curved tusks up to 16 feet (5m) long and their underbellies boasted a coat of shaggy hair up to 3 feet (1m) long.

Tiny ears and short tails prevented vital body heat being lost.

Their trunks had ‘two fingers’ at the end to help them pluck grass, twigs and other vegetation.

They get their name from the Russian ‘mammut’, or earth mole, as it was believed the animals lived underground and died on contact with light – explaining why they were always found dead and half-buried.

Their bones were once believed to have belonged to extinct races of giants.

Woolly mammoths and modern-day elephants are closely related, sharing 99.4 per cent of their genes.

The two species took separate evolutionary paths six million years ago, at about the same time humans and chimpanzees went their own way.

Woolly mammoths co-existed with early humans, who hunted them for food and used their bones and tusks for making weapons and art. 

The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, allows scientists to create a hybrid animal from the preserved fossils of woolly mammoths and merging it with cells from a living elephant. The two species share 99.4 per cent of their DNA

The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, allows scientists to create a hybrid animal from the preserved fossils of woolly mammoths and merging it with cells from a living elephant. The two species share 99.4 per cent of their DNA

‘De-extincting’ the mammoth has become a realistic prospect because of revolutionary gene editing techniques that allow the precise selection and insertion of DNA from specimens frozen over millennia in Siberian ice. 

The most widely used technique, known as CRISPR/Cas9, has transformed genetic engineering since it was first demonstrated in 2012.

The system allows the ‘cut and paste’ manipulation of strands of DNA with a precision not seen before.

Using this technique, scientists could cut and paste preserved mammoth DNA into Asian elephants to create and elephant-mammoth hybrid. 

Mammoths roamed the icy tundra of Europe and North America for 140,000 years, disappearing at the end of the Pleistocene period, 10,000 years ago.

They are one of the best understood prehistoric animals known to science because their remains are often not fossilised but frozen and preserved.



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