A mammoth's prey was found 3,000 meters deep in a distance of 240 km off the coast of California. Although the mammoth died on land, its huge body found its way into the Pacific Ocean and was carried away by the currents.
The body remained in place for millennia before being discovered in 2019 by scientists from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. They found one of its prey while using remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) to search for new deepwater species off the coast of Monterey, California.
The crew tried to collect the mysterious object. Unfortunately the tip of the tusk broke off. They took the small piece and left the rest behind. Only when the scientists examined the fragment were they sure that what they had found was indeed a tusk. But from which animal and from what time period was still unknown.
The discovery of such a specimen in the deep sea is rare. Tusks and other skeletal remains of prehistoric creatures are usually found deep underground or encased in permafrost near the Arctic. Although some specimens have been found in shallow water in the North Sea of Western Europe, the remains of a mammoth, or any ancient mammal, have never beenfound in such deep water.
Preliminary research by Dr. Steven Haddock, a biologist who led the study in 2019, presented the possibility that this was not just any mammoth. Instead, it could have been a mammoth that died during the Lower Paleolithic, an era that lasted from 2.7 million to 200,000 years ago. Specimens from this era are rare to be found well-preserved.
Further study of this specimen could help answer questions about the evolution of mammoths in North America. The discovery also suggests that the ocean floor could be covered with paleontological treasures that will add to our knowledge of the past. But before the team could really move forward with their research, they had to go back out to sea to collect the rest of theprey.
During the new expedition, before collecting the rest of the prey, the team recorded videos and photos of the object that could be used to recreate a 3D model of the prey. Fortunately, the team was able to collect all of the prey.
Analysis of mammoth prey
Recent advances in the field of ancient DNA have allowed genetic studies of animals up to a million years old. Scientists hope that with more DNA samples it will be possible to determine the species of mammoth, as well as its lineage.
The prey was approximately one meter long and was covered by a thick crust of iron-manganese. The deep sea is rich in these metals, and in some places a shell of iron-manganese will form around any object that stands still long enough, at least a few thousand years.
The thickness of the crust suggested the tusk was ancient, but to find out exactly how old, Dr. Blackburn, whose lab in Santa Cruz specializes in geochronology, studied the decay of radioactive materials in samples of the original tusk recovered in 2019.
He estimated that the prey had been sitting on the sea floor for more than 100,000 years, although these findings have yet to be peer-reviewed and are not definitive.
Mammoth tusks more than 100,000 years old are extremely rare and studying them may bring scientists new insights into the Lower Paleolithic, a poorly understood era of Earth's history.
Mammoths, the furry relatives of modern elephants, first appeared about five million years ago and became extinct about 4,000 years ago. The first mammoths left Africa and spread north, evolving into distinct species along the way until they colonized much of the northern hemisphere.
Elephants and mammoths store vast amounts of information in their tusks. they grow layer by layer, creating a structure that resembles tree rings. the size and shape of these layers can tell scientists a great deal about the animal's life history with near-daily resolution, including, in the case of females, how often they produced offspring. moreover,Each microscopic layer contains isotopes that reflect what the animal was eating. These isotopes can be traced back to specific locations, allowing scientists to know not only what the animal was eating, but where.
It is believed that there are more specimens to be discovered on the sea floor. Which brings to light the need for protection of the deep sea from mining and drilling. If the seamount where Dr. Haddock and his team found the specimen had been disturbed by oil or mineral extraction, it is likely that the prey would have been buried by sediment, and never found.