Researchers recover ancient mammoth tusk during deep sea expedition

The dark depths of the ocean hold many secrets. During an expedition aboard the R / V Western Flyer in 2019, ROV pilot Randy Prickett and scientist Steven Haddock made a particular observation. While exploring a seamount 300 kilometers (185 miles) off California and 3,070 meters (10,000 feet) deep, the team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) spotted what looked like to an elephant tusk.

Having only been able to collect a small piece at the time, the scientists returned in July 2021 to retrieve the full specimen. Now, Haddock and researchers from UC Santa Cruz and the Paleontology Museum at the University of Michigan are reviewing the defense.

The researchers confirmed that the tusk about a meter (just over three feet) long came from a Colombian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). The cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea preserved the defense in a unique way, giving researchers the opportunity to study it in more detail. Computed tomography (CT) scans will reveal the full three-dimensional internal structure of the tusk and more information about the animal’s history, such as its age.

The team believe it may be the oldest well-preserved mammoth tusk recovered from this region of North America. The tusk dating is performed by the UCSC Geochronology Laboratory headed by Terrence Blackburn, associate professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences.

Researchers at UCSC’s paleogenomics lab led by Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, plan to sequence the ancient DNA embedded in the specimen, which could provide valuable insight into how mammoths came to be. colonized North America. Katherine Moon, a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro’s lab, accompanied Haddock on the July cruise to retrieve the complete specimen.

“You start to ‘expect the unexpected’ when exploring the deep sea, but I’m still amazed that we came across a mammoth’s ancient tusk,” Haddock said. “We are grateful to have a multidisciplinary team analyzing this remarkable specimen, including a geochronologist, oceanographers and paleogenomics from UCSC, and paleontologists from the University of Michigan. Our work on this exciting discovery is only just beginning and we look forward to sharing more information in the future. “

Shapiro and Moon will retrieve the ancient DNA preserved in the Defense Matrix, which they will compare to DNA already retrieved from other mammoths. “Specimens like this provide a rare opportunity to paint a picture of both an animal that was alive and the environment it lived in,” Shapiro said. “Mammoth remains from mainland North America are particularly rare, so we expect DNA from this tusk to go far in refining what we know about mammoths in this part of the world.”

“This specimen’s deep-sea preservation environment is unlike almost anything we’ve seen elsewhere,” added Daniel Fisher, a University of Michigan paleontologist specializing in the study of mammoths and mastodons. “Other mammoths have been recovered from the oceans, but generally not at depths of more than a few tens of meters.”

Fisher and his colleagues at UM will use their knowledge of the structure and composition of mammoth tusks to analyze CT scans of the specimen. Other members of the Museum of Paleontology team are Adam N. Rountrey, Michael D. Cherney, Ethan A. Shirley, and Scott G. Beld.

The ocean represents 99% of the space where life can exist on this planet and yet we still know very little about it. As the interest in the exploitation of the deep sea by precious metal mining grew up – with the potential to place many sea animals in danger—This startling discovery, hidden at the bottom of the sea for eons, serves as a fragile reminder of the many remaining mysteries worthy of our protection.

About Mark A. Tomlin

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