Paleontologist Wayne Thompson holding up the mastodon teeth while collections manager Kathleen Aston nervously looks on.
Paleontologist Wayne Thompson holding up the mastodon tooth while Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History collections manager Kathleen Aston looks on.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
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Q&A: Recently discovered mastodon tooth may hold ancient secrets about evolution of Santa Cruz County

Wayne Thompson has been fascinated with ancient animals since his family owned Scotts Valley’s now-closed Lost World attraction. He’s been on the trail of Ice Age mammals in Santa Cruz County since a juvenile mastodon skull turned up in Aptos Creek in 1980, and the May find of a tooth on a Rio Del Mar beach has the Museum of Natural History paleontologist excited anew.

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The discovery of the tooth of a mastodon, an Ice Age mammal, on Rio Del Mar Beach over Memorial Day weekend sent local paleontologist Wayne Thompson back to 1980.

Back then, Thompson, in his early 20s and striving toward a paleontology career, worked at the front desk of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History when locals uncovered a juvenile mastodon skull in Aptos Creek. The groundbreaking discovery offered clear evidence for the first time that the giant mammals, which existed more than 10,000 years ago, once called Santa Cruz County home.

The news then reached the New York Times, attention that blew a young Thompson away. This latest discovery, four decades later, created a different kind of media circus.

“You know, we’re in the digital age now,” Thompson says. “We made the news in New Zealand. I have family in Paris who called and told me they saw me on the news there.”

Ironically, this Ice Age fossil might still be missing were it not for the spoils of the digital age and social media.

Jennifer Schuh, a California resident vacationing in the county over Memorial Day, first found the chunky, brown and black object in the sand during a walk. She posted a photo to the Facebook group Aptosia, hoping for some clarity from the digital community. A user tagged Thompson in the comments; he instantly recognized it was an adult mastodon tooth, a “scientifically significant” discovery. Schuh and Thompson connected and trekked down to the beach together to look for the object.

After a fruitless search, Thompson leaned on social media to eventually connect with San Francisco’s KRON-TV. Thompson appealed to the community to turn the tooth in to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. The story went viral and eventually reached Aptos resident Jim Smith, who had scooped up the tooth during a jog. Smith brought the fossil into the museum a couple days later.

Thompson, now in his early 60s, is a lifelong Santa Cruz County resident. He grew up in Scotts Valley, where his parents opened and operated the famed Lost World attraction, a park of life-sized animatronic dinosaurs visible from Highway 17. When the motors in the dinosaurs started acting up, Thompson’s job was to climb up inside the dinosaur’s neck and manually move its head and growl at customers. Thompson understands this experience as his foray inside ancient animals, a world he hasn’t since left.

Paleontologist Wayne Thompson standing proud in front of the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz )

The tooth confirms the existence of a second mastodon in Santa Cruz County. Scientific testing will eventually reveal exactly the age of the tooth, and what the mastodon’s diet might have been, adding another piece to the evolutionary puzzle of the region’s flora and fauna across eons.

Lookout caught up with Thompson outside the Museum of Natural History last week to talk about the tooth and what it means to Santa Cruz County.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: I understand you actually knew Jim Smith, the man who swiped the tooth from the beach and brought it into the museum?

Wayne Thompson: Yes! It turns out I knew this fellow. I’m always out collecting fossils. He’s a jogger on the beach and he often stops by to see what I’m doing and check out the area. Often, before I can even turn around to say hi, he’s already gone. He’s quite shy, but I can’t wait to meet him again someday in person.

Lookout: What was going through your mind when you received the notification on Facebook that this tooth was found on a local beach?

Thompson: There was just this sense of incredible joy because every year since 1980, I’ve gone back to the creek where the skull was found to look for other bones of that mastodon. I know the rest of that animal is there somewhere.

Not only was this tooth from a mastodon, but it was from a completely different one. The skull belonged to a juvenile. The tooth is from an adult, probably between the ages of 30 and 40. This bumps up the excitement even more because now we don’t have just one mastodon, we have at least two.

Lookout: Given the circumstances, it’s difficult to imagine this discovery could have been possible without social media.

Thompson: Absolutely. If you’re walking on the beach, and you see this thing, you’re probably not thinking “gigantic tooth,” right?

Lookout: I don’t know if I’m ever thinking “gigantic tooth.”

Thompson: Right! Unless you know the anatomy of these creatures, the object doesn’t really speak “tooth,” per se. When we went back to the beach and it was gone, my heart dropped because the chances of it ever turning up again were pretty much slim to nil.

Lookout: You’ve described the tooth as a “scientifically significant” find. How does this latest discovery differ from the skull back in 1980?

Thompson: It’s significant for Santa Cruz County because it’s a testable fossil and only the second one that we have in our possession. We’ll be able to figure out the environmental conditions from the time that it lived. We’ll be able to figure out how long ago it lived, which will have some bearing on our understanding of the evolution of areas like Aptos Creek and [Forest of] Nisene Marks State Park. That there is sediment on the tooth from the last Ice Age is, in and of itself, extremely cool and interesting. The tooth will be another piece of the puzzle for what the Ice Age looked like in Santa Cruz County.

Lookout: What have you learned so far?

Thompson: Well, back in that day when we found the skull, we were working with rudimentary technology. Now, we have more sophisticated means, and we’re working with UC Santa Cruz’s Division of Physical and Biological Sciences, and the U.S. Geological Survey, to do a couple different studies.

The work done so far puts the associated plant matter embedded in the tooth at around 5,000 years old, which would make this mastodon the youngest on record in the U.S. However, I suspect that will be erroneous because those tests are only dating the plant matter and not the bone itself.

Paleontologist Wayne Thompson holding up a pair of sunglasses to give and image of size of mastodon tooth.
Paleontologist Wayne Thompson holds up a pair of sunglasses to give an idea of the size of the mastodon tooth. This set of teeth was from the lower jaw.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: But you are going to be able to date this thing?

Thompson: Absolutely. I think it’s going to be 10,000 years old, but that’s just a gut feeling. We’re also going to be able to look at the signature of its diet, since what it used to eat is embedded in the enamel.

Lookout: I heard that there was some confusion over who technically owned the tooth since it was discovered on State Parks land?

Thompson: Yes. Because the tooth was discovered on State Parks property, it technically belongs to the California parks department and they are loaning it to the museum.

Lookout: You seem disappointed by that.

Thompson: Well, State Parks means a lot of extra paperwork is involved. But they seem very cooperative about working together. They do not own a museum where they would display the tooth, which means the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is the best place for it. It needs a special museum environment so the tooth can be properly cared for. It’s fragile, and little pieces are already flecking off the root.

Lookout: Has this discovery driven more traffic or interest in the museum? Despite it aiding in the discovery, I imagine the digital age hasn’t been great for the museum.

Thompson: Absolutely. Several hundred people came to the museum when we had it on display for a couple days right after it was turned in.

The tooth has also sparked interest among people who want to get identifications on some things they discovered on their land.

Lookout: Anything cool there?

Thompson: Actually, yes. We had a person recently call in who had a giant mammoth femur in their garden. It was up in the Bay Area, and that bone is now going to the California Academy of Sciences.

Lookout: What’s next for this tooth before it gets displayed publicly?

Thompson: Probably within the next year we’ll have an exhibit titled “Mammoths, Mastodons and Monterey Bay, Oh My!” where we will display the tooth.

The next steps, in terms of science, involved taking microsamples of the root and the enamel, and testing those for age and getting some definite data on that.

Lookout: What questions are you hoping to answer?

Thompson: The most important question for me is, how old is the owner of this tooth? Is it from the same age as the skull or a completely different era?