Plymouth, N.H. – Nearly ten years ago, PSU biology professor Fred Prince was fly-fishing on a remote stream in Campton, N.H., when a strange object caught his eye in the streamside gravel. He picked up the odd, laminated structure and turned it over and over in the bright sunlight. He knew it was unique, but had no idea what it was.
“I threw it away, I just dropped it back into the gravel,” Prince recalls. “It was ten years after the fact when I realized what I had done.”
This past January he acquired a woolly mammoth molar and a partial molar from an acquaintance in The Netherlands, specimens dredged up in the North Sea.
“As soon as I put that partial molar in my hand I was back ten years ago beside that stream,” Prince noted. “I felt sick knowing what I tossed aside.”
But that mistake sparked an interest in Prince. He started researching the woolly mammoth, detailing the prehistoric mammal’s anatomy, evolution and habitat. Now armed with the knowledge of how a mammoth molar was constructed, he vowed to find another one.
This past April, he climbed into his truck and headed back into the Upper Pemigewaset Valley.
“I told my wife, ‘I’m going to go look for a mammoth molar,’ and I found this in a decades-old gravel pit; it was the third place I looked,” Prince said. “It was embedded into the surface of the ground, and I could see those contours on top. I know it’s hard to believe, but that’s what happened. I went out specifically to find a mammoth tooth and I did. So, with this second chance, I officially had the first New Hampshire mammoth find to go along with my unofficial find of years ago.”
“You can tell it’s a woolly mammoth because the black enamel thickness is only one millimeter,” said Prince. “With the Columbian mammoth, so common in the western and central US, the enamel thickness is 2 to 2.5 millimeters.”
Prince decided to send photos of the specimen to Dr. Larry Agenbroad, Director of The Mammoth Site in South Dakota, who confirmed it was from a woolly mammoth.
“He’s been doing this for nearly 50 years, so I was really happy with his enthusiastic response,” Prince noted.
After visual confirmation by Dr. Agenbroad, most of the specimen was sent to the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry Lab at the University of Arizona for radiocarbon dating. Unfortunately, the collagen was not preserved so the specimen could not be dated.
The woolly mammoth was about the size of a modern African elephant; a male woolly mammoth’s shoulder height was 9 to 11 feet tall and weighed approximately 6 tons. The woolly mammoth, however, is more closely related to the Asian elephant. The last woolly mammoths went extinct about 11,000 years ago worldwide, with the exception of a small colony that survived on Wrangel Island until 4,000 years ago; their habitat was the mammoth steppe, a tundra-like area stretching from northern Eurasia to North America.
Mammoth remains are rare in New England; they include a tooth and a tusk excavated near Mt. Holly, Vt., in 1848 during railroad construction and a partial skeleton found in 1959 near Scarborough, Maine. The closest finding to the Granite State was a tooth dredged from the sea in early 2013 near the Isles of Shoals, off the coast of Rye. Prince said he wouldn’t be surprised if other people have found woolly mammoth fossils, but, like him, didn’t realize what they were holding.
“I wouldn’t doubt there are people who have picked up something like this and did the same thing I did ten years ago. I think people have assumed some were here in New England, but there isn’t much evidence, in part due to the acidity of our soil and in part likely a result of low population density,” Prince added.
Prince, a 64 year-old Pennsylvania native, has worked at PSU since 1985. He continues to search for woolly mammoth fossils and is currently writing a research paper on this initial New Hampshire finding and his ideas on the changes in climate and vegetation across New England following the retreat of the ice at the end of the Pleistocene age. His other research interests are primarily about cell biology, including human muscle fibers, myelin development, steroid-cell structure and development and mitochondrial structure.
For more information about this release, contact Bruce Lyndes, PSU News Services Mgr., (603) 535-2775 or firstname.lastname@example.org