PSU professor finds first woolly mammoth evidence in NH
By BOB MARTIN
Plymouth — About a decade ago, Plymouth State University Professor Fred Prince made the discovery of a lifetime — he just didn’t know it.
This past April, Prince took his truck up into the Upper Pemigewasett Valley in search of a mammoth molar after discarding the last one he found as only an interesting looking rock or fossil. He said that it may have been intuition, or the fact that he was determined to find such a relic after throwing away his epic find years earlier. In what was a bit of luck, Prince found a fragment of a woolly mammoth tooth in a decades-old gravel pit. It is the first documented evidence that woolly mammoths resided in the Granite State.
“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.”
Prince, a professor of cellular biology and anatomy and physiology at PSU, has continued his search for woolly mammoth fossils and studying the prehistoric mammal. He is in the process of writing a research paper on this discovery and his ideas on climate change and vegetation across New England at the end of the Pleistocene Age.
Rewind 10 years to a day where Prince was spending his time fly-fishing on a remote stream in Campton. A strange object caught his eye in the gravel along the stream. He picked up item, turned it over, and reveled about how unique it was. At the time he had no idea that it was a piece of a woolly mammoth tooth.
“I’m always out looking for fossils and things — I’ve been dealing with biology for a half-century plus, and this really stumped me,” Prince explained.
He said that he started getting particularly interested in climate change and woolly mammoths, which was a regained interest that he had as a child, this past January. He acquired a woolly mammoth molar and a partial molar from an acquaintance in the Netherlands from specimens taken from the North Sea. When he held it, he couldn’t believe that it was just like what he had found 10 years earlier.
“As soon as I saw the thing, I almost fell on the floor,” Prince said. “I knew exactly what I had. I kicked myself for a bit and kind of fretted all winter waiting for the snow to melt.”
Prince said that throughout the winter he would have a couple beers at night and study mammoth molars as well as the habits of woolly mammoths. Prince said that he went out in April, when the snow was disappearing, toward a south-facing slope. He looked in three spots, and with third time being a charm, something caught his eye at the bottom of the old gravel area.
“I looked at it and said, ‘That’s it!’” Prince said. “I got lucky again.”
The piece was in bad shape, so Prince snapped photographs and sent them to Dr. Larry Agenbroad, who is the director of The Mammoth Site in South Dakota and has been a mammoth expert for about 50 years. Prince did not know if Agenbroad would be able to tell by the photographs, but he said Agenbroad confirmed that it was indeed a woolly mammoth molar.
“You can tell it’s a woolly mammoth because the black enamel thickness is only one millimeter,” Prince said. “With the Columbian mammoth, so common in the western and central U.S., the enamel thickness is 2 to 2.5 millimeters.”
Although he was hesitant because of the deteriorated nature of the find, he decided to send out about two-thirds of the piece to the Accelerator Mass Spectrometry lab at the University of Arizona for radiocarbon dating. However, the collagen was not preserved and could not be dated.
The prehistoric animals tended to be about the size of a modern African elephant, weighing about six tons. It is more closely related to the Asian elephant, however. The last woolly mammoths went extinct about 11,000 years ago, save for a small colony that survived on Wrangel Island in Alaska until about 4,000 years ago.
Mammoth remains are rare in New England — Prince said he has scoured scientific papers and has found very little evidence of them in the area. He spoke of a tooth, tusk and bones that were excavated near Mt. Holly, Vt., in 1848 during railroad construction. There was also a partial skeleton found in 1959 near Scarborough, Maine. There was one finding close to New Hampshire last year, where a tooth was dredged from the sea near the Isles of Shoals. He said that there has not been any finds in Connecticut and only one from Boston. In New York, evidence of mastodons can be found, but not many mammoths.
“I wouldn’t doubt there are people who have picked up something like this and did the same thing I did 10 years ago,” Prince said. “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.”
However, Prince said that he is still pondering why there does not seem to be many signs of mammoths in New Hampshire. Prince said that he is an outdoorsman, and is always out looking for things like arrowheads and fossils. He said that there is actually not much to find in New Hampshire, and he said that this could be because of the last ice age wiping the area clean and leaving mostly igneous rock. This is compared to other spots, such as in his native state of Pennsylvania, where anywhere you step, a fossil could be found.
“I guess I don’t have a real good handle on it, but we don’t have things preserved very well,” Prince said. “I get the impression there was just not a large population here.”