A woman walking on Rio Del Mar State Beach on Saturday posted a Facebook photo of a unique object she saw in the sand but left behind. A local paleontologist recognized the mysterious object as the tooth of an adult mastodon, an Ice Age mammal that went extinct between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago. However, by the time he rushed to the beach, the tooth was gone, setting off a desperate search for a rare scientific discovery. On Tuesday, an Aptos resident gave the tooth to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
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The photo of the mysterious object posted on Facebook appears, to uninitiated eyes, as a long-charred chunk of petrified wood — a not wholly uncommon find on West Coast beaches.
The photographer, Jennifer Schuh, didn’t think the hefty, footlong object was fascinating enough to pick up and lug around during the remainder of her Saturday stroll on Rio Del Mar State Beach. She left it behind but remained curious enough to inquire with her followers on social media.
Wayne Thompson, a local paleontologist, told a Bay Area news station he nearly fell out of his chair when he saw the photo of what he instantly recognized as the molar of a Pacific mastodon, a massive, mammothlike mammal that lived during the Ice Age and went extinct 5,000 to 10,000 years ago. He immediately dashed to the beach to search for the scientifically significant find but came up empty.
He knew someone had taken it. Thompson shot out an appeal on social media, begging whoever picked it up to turn it in to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. With an influx of out-of-town visitors over the holiday weekend, the chances of Thompson’s prayer being answered were slim.
The universe responded to Thompson’s attempt at manifestation. Liz Broughton, a manager at the museum, told Lookout that an Aptos resident, Jim Smith, turned the tooth in to the museum Tuesday.
“He is an elderly gentleman and longtime runner on Rio del Mar Beach who spotted it while running,” Broughton said of Smith, who told museum staff he does not want to speak with the media. “He thought it looked interesting and weird, so he picked it up. He was really delighted to discover what it was and that he could bring it to the museum.”
Thompson, who couldn’t be reached in time to comment for this story, wrote in his Instagram post that the tooth was an “extremely important specimen.” He was able to conclude, just from Schuh’s photo, that it was the “worn molar of an adult extinct Pacific mastodon … and is only the third known specimen of the species in our area.”
Broughton told Lookout that teeth can offer a fountain of scientific information, such as clues to an animal’s habitat, diet and life history.
“Every specimen we have is an additional piece of the puzzle to figure out what life was like here in Santa Cruz,” Broughton said. “Any bit of data we can eke up will contribute knowledge of mastodons on the Central Coast and how the flora and fauna has changed over time.”
Broughton says a team will now analyze the tooth and prepare it for display inside the museum, where a juvenile mastodon skull is already available for viewing. Broughton could not provide a timeline but said she would be surprised if it took as long as a year before the tooth could be seen by the public.
“It’s amazing how our community is,” Broughton said of the broad response to Thompson’s appeal to social media to help locate the tooth. “They trust us as an organization and keeper of scientific knowledge for our region. It was really heartwarming to see.”