Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Elephants under the sea
I ran across this news item while hunting for woolly mammoth news about two weeks ago.
A New Bedford-based boat dredging for scallops in Georges Bank off the coast of Maine may have pulled up something a little more interesting than shellfish. Tim Winchenbach hauled in a foot-long, curved, tusk-like object that scientists think may be a 13,000-year-old fossil from a prehistoric elephant.

Mammoth and mastodon bones are not rare in North America. We have identified parts of thousands of individuals. What makes a find interesting is if a skeleton is unusually well preserved or complete, if it has any soft tissue still preserved, if it is in an area where that species has not previously been found, or if it can be dated to a time--earlier or later--than that species has previously been found in that area. Naturally, any human association with the fossil adds immensely to its interest. At the top of the list is any human association that is absolute proof that humans killed the elephant and didn't just use the bones or ivory post-mortem. As you can see, we know what most extinct mammoths and mastodons looked like; only the very oldest bones, which might add to our knowledge of their evolution, are interesting just as bones. What makes a bone interesting nowadays is almost always the extra information we can gain from the context of the find.

In this case, the ivory was dredged out of the sea, almost completely destroying its context. It's just a fragment of a tusk, so we're not even sure which species it is. Why am I interested in this one?

Most significant to my scientific interests is the fact of the tusk's offshore discovery. The Georges Bank is not part of a river estuary or delta near the shore where the tusk might have washed down. It is a separate set of drowned hills larger than the state of Massachusetts. During the last ice age, the Georges Bank was dry land. This mammoth or mastodon most likely lived there. We are just beginning to reconstruct the flora and fauna of these submerged lands. This is a new field.

Northeast North America 12,000 years ago. At that time, so much water was locked up in the ice caps that the sea level was several hundred feet lower than it is today. However, the melting had begun and the coastlines were shifting rapidly. A: The Grand Banks B: Georges Bank C: The coast of Maine and New Brunswick. (Map source)

The other reason for my excitement, is that I'm sure we will be hearing more about this find from our friends in the realms of fringe history and science. Take a look at what Plato had to say about the resources of Atlantis in his Critias.
For because of the greatness of their empire many things were brought to them from foreign countries, and the island itself provided most of what was required by them for the uses of life. In the first place, they dug out of the earth whatever was to be found there, solid as well as fusile, and that which is now only a name and was then something more than a name, orichalcum, was dug out of the earth in many parts of the island, being more precious in those days than anything except gold. There was an abundance of wood for carpenter's work, and sufficient maintenance for tame and wild animals. Moreover, there were a great number of elephants in the island; for as there was provision for all other sorts of animals, both for those which live in lakes and marshes and rivers, and also for those which live in mountains and on plains, so there was for the animal which is the largest and most voracious of all.

There were elephants on Atlantis. This is tusk from a type of elephant dredged up from the Atlantic seafloor. What could make them happier? Elephants were a recurring theme among Atlantis hunters in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. History professors regularly had to deal with cranks who were sure they had discovered images of elephants in fuzzy reproductions of Mayan carvings, just as they now have deal with those who are sure they see astronauts and sophisticated hardware in those same carvings. Mayan and Aztec elephants attained the level of a painful cliché around the era of the First World War.

I'll have more to say about that in a future post. Meanwhile, I hope we can squeeze some good science out of this tusk before the bad science appropriates it.

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