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During their research, scientists sometimes make unusual discoveries … Like a mammoth tusk at the bottom of the ocean! This is the surprising finding that researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) just announced a few days ago. While exploring a seamount located 3,000 meters deep and 300 km off the coast of California, they came face to face in 2019 with the tusk of a young Columbus mammoth. Drafted in July, the tusk is being analyzed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers to determine its age, how it ended up in this seamount and its DNA sequence.
2019, off California: As part of a deep-sea exploration aboard the RV Wester Flyer research catamaran, Randy Prickett, an unmanned underwater vehicle pilot, and Steven Haddock, a marine biologist, remotely scrutinize an underwater mount at 3000 meters deep. Suddenly, they see a funny curved cylindrical shape, washed up on the ocean floor. To a naive eye, just a lost tree trunk … But not for these scientists: is it a mammoth tusk? A sampling is overwhelming, and motivates the return to the scene of the MBARI researchers in July 2021 to collect the object.
Ripped from the terrestrial world, the meter-long cylinder was indeed a defense! We even know its owner: a young Columbus mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), one of the largest mammoths that have ever existed, present in America from approximately 1.5 million years to about 10,000 years before our era. It is already establishing itself as one of the oldest mammoth tusks in North America, and the first to be found so far offshore and so deep.
Marine biologist Steven Haddock and his science team observe the internal structure of the defense positioned on the ocean floor. © Darrin Schultz / MBARI
A window open to a past world.
The defense study has just begun and has not yet been the subject of scientific publications. However, his analysis promises to be rich in discoveries. “These specimens provide a unique opportunity to portray both the environment in which the animal lived and the animal itself,” says Beth Shapiro, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the UCSC Paloegenomics Laboratory, for MBARI. His team will be in charge of extracting the DNA from this tusk, extremely well preserved given its age thanks to its dark, cold (4 ° C) and high pressure (300 times atmospheric pressure) environment.
The defense dating, carried out by the team of Professor Terrence Blackburn of the UCSC Geochronology Laboratory, has already provided initial results, thanks to the analysis of the decay of the radioactive isotopes of uranium and thorium present in the defense. The state of this decay, in relation to its current value and the rate of radioactive decay of these elements, provides information on the age at which these elements were found trapped in the tusk, during the life of the animal. Result: it would be over 100,000 years old! It could even date to the Lower Paleolithic, which spanned from 3.3 million years to 300,000 years ago.
Finally, while paleontologists will determine the structure and composition of the defense without destroying the sample using computed tomography, a final team of researchers will try to understand where the sample came from and how ocean currents transported it here. Through full analysis of this preserved tusk, the researchers hope to shed light on the life history of the unfortunate owner of this tusk … but also illustrate that the ocean floor is a veritable treasure chest of preserved fossils.
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