|September 30, 1999
Volume 30 Number 4
|A publication for the faculty, staff, administrators, and friends of California State University, Chico|
Students Perform Mammoth Tooth Extraction
On a recent hot afternoon in Bidwell's Upper Park, Vic Fisher, Geosciences, led students to the side of a dry stream, down a steep path, dusty and strewn with loose rock. Stopping a little over half-way down, the students hauled picks, shovels, chisels, screwdrivers, brushes, water, plaster of Paris, aluminum foil, and rope to a ledge where three small ridges rose from the dirt. This is the side of a mammoth tooth, barely visible (it could be covered by a cupped hand), and to the untutored eye, it looked more like jagged rock than the chewing mechanism of a long-dead mammal grazing at the side of a stream.
On an earlier field trip for a stratigraphy class, students exploring the sequencing of the strata brought a piece of rock to Fisher, asking him what it was. At first he thought it was calcium carbonate, but when he applied acid to the fragment it didn't fizz as expected. Puzzled, he asked the students to show him where they found it. They had dug out enough of the strange object for Fisher to see "the dentition and root structure" on the tooth. "It dawned on me that I had a tooth there and that it had the structure of a mammoth tooth," he said.
It is quite unusual to find any vertebrate fossil. Fisher explained, "When an organism dies, especially on land surfaces, weathering elements break down the bones. What isn't broken down by weathering is scattered by scavengers." Fisher's best guess is that the mammoth tooth is between ten and forty thousand years old, a period when mammoths lived in the area, which was then cool, wet, and lush.
Fisher likes to see students completely involved in projects, and on this dig, students took the lead. David Mahoney, a student with a lifelong interest in fossils, and experience in digging and cleaning dinosaur bones, quickly became the group's leader, demonstrating and explaining the procedure. "We're going to dig down around the tooth, and there's going to be a pedestal sticking up with the tooth on it," Mahoney said. "Then we'll add the plaster and break the pedestal off."
The students crouched around the tooth and began to dig. "I've wanted to do something like this all my life," said a beaming Annie Adamian, hands sifting through the dirt as she dug for more tooth fragments.
Fisher reminded the students to stop if they encountered anything strange. Mahoney explained that they would have to rely more on sound than sight, "If you hear something different, stop immediately, because there could be bone there." Several times people stopped, shifting from chisel to brush to carefully clean off a hard surface, usually to find more rocks buried near the tooth. Some small tooth fragments were found, but no jaw.
Once the pedestal was created, students started to dig under it, creating a mushroom shape still attached to the ground. Mahoney wrapped the earthen pedestal and tooth with aluminum foil. Once the shape looked like a gigantic baked potato, the students covered the top and sides in plaster of Paris. When the plaster dried, Fisher and Mahoney carefully pried the cast off its support, to the claps, gasps, and cheers of the students. Then came the grunts, groans, and heavy breathing as they carried the approximately 80-pound package of tooth and dirt up the slope.
The plaster holds the material together, so they can get it back to the lab. Once in the lab, it will be turned over, and students will use dental tools to carefully remove the dirt, starting from the side still buried, the side less weathered. The tooth will be cleaned, sealed, and displayed.
Fisher said, "The earth sciences, from my standpoint, are very exciting, but to find something like this just adds spice to it." -- BA
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