Posted by: Loren Coleman on January 8th, 2007
Fisherman Tim Winchenbach poses outside his home in Cushing, Maine, with a mysterious prehistoric tusk that was pulled up with a load of scallop shells on a New Bedford vessel fishing off Georges Bank in December 2006. Photos by Joel Page.
Does this tusk come from a ten-thousand-years or older, long gone mammoth or mastodon? Along the coast of Maine, the news of this find has been a strange but popular story in the papers, on the local television channels, and of some note to lovers of curios and fossils. It is, needless to say, not especially cryptozoological, unless the tusk turns out to be of recent origin or not of a mammoth or mastodon. However, it is mostly an intriguing tale of what kind of weird thing might turn up in your next net of scallops.
The following is a summary of extracts from three local sources published in Portland.
Look What I Found!
One of the first in the media to break the story was Rhonda Erskine at WCSH-TV, who wrote a story on January 4, 2007, entitled “Maine Fisherman Makes Mammoth Find.”
Here’s part of what she wrote:
A fisherman from Cushing recently caught more than he expected off Georges Bank, and now wants to find out what it really is. Tim Winchenbach was working on a scallop dragger when he found what appears to be a wooly mammoth’s tusk….
Winchenbach says he has seen whale bones before, and is convinced its not that or any other sea creature. Now he and his family are waiting for some experts to see it for themselves. They have sent photos of the tusk to a researcher at the Maine State Museum.
“I thought it could be a walrus tusk, but they’re different shape like oval shape and this is perfectly round and a lot bigger around,” said Winchenbach.
“Just the thought that I’ve held something potentially 10,000 years old or older, and nobody else in the world has touched it before us. I find it really fascinating,” said Winchenbach’s wife Michelle.
Tim and Michelle say once they find out for sure what it is, they will probably donate the tusk to a museum, where it can be properly preserved.
An old drawing of a mammoth. In North America, various species of mammoths existed, including three large species – woolly mammoth, (Mammuthus primigenius), Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), and Jeffersonian mammoth (Mammuthus jeffersonii) – and one small-sized species – the pygmy or Channel Islands mammoth (Mammuthus exilis).
More Discovery Details
On January 6, 2007, Don Cuddy of the Standard Times wrote about the incident in an article entitled, “Mammoth find by city scalloper? Tusk identified as 13,000 years old pulled out of Georges Bank”:
A routine fishing trip took an exotic turn last month when a New Bedford scalloper brought up a 13,000-year-old tusk along with its catch. The fishing vessel Celtic was dredging on Georges Bank in December when one of the crew spotted a dark object protruding from the pile of scallops dumped on deck. Deckhand Tim Winchenbach at first thought he was looking at an old piece of wood, but after tapping it on the deck he realized that it was something much more intriguing.
Now it appears that his find, preserved through the ages in the clay bottom, may actually be a tusk from the long-extinct woolly mammoth.
“It was pretty rough when we got it aboard so I just stuck it in my sea bag till we came back,” he said. “But it has to be kept in fresh water for a long time and then dried out slowly so it doesn’t break.”
Mr. Winchenbach, 31, who lives in Cushing, Maine, said he kept the tusk under the “finders keepers” rule observed on the scalloper.
“The other guys didn’t think it was any big deal,” he said.
He arrived back in New Bedford on Dec. 21 from the 17-day trip and brought it home to his wife, Michelle. She decided to look for expert help in identifying the tusk.
“We took some photos and sent them to the Maine State Museum in Augusta,” Ms. Winchenbach said. “Based on the coloration, they say it’s definitely about 13,000 years old.”
Paula Work, zoological curator at the museum, looked at the pictures and confirmed the tusk is the real thing.
“This has been very exciting for the museum. It’s definitely Pleistocene, which is the Ice Age, and my gut feeling is that it’s from a mastodon,” she said. “But I can’t confirm that until I have actually seen it for myself. If it’s not a mammoth or a mastodon, the only other possibility is a giant bison.”
While woolly mammoths may fire the popular imagination, it would be even more exciting if the tusk came from a mastodon, Ms. Work said.
“Woolly mammoths roamed in the open while mastodons preferred woodland areas. This would be more evidence to support the theory that the area now below Georges Bank was once all woodland.”
Although comparatively rare, the tusk’s value is mainly scientific, she said.
“Since they opened up the Siberian plateau, there has been a lot more coming on the world market,” she said….
This old drawing says this is of an American mastodon. Mastodons (Mammut americanum) are members of the extinct genus Mammut and form the family Mammutidae; they resembled, but were different from, the woolly mammoth which belongs to the family Elephantidae. Indeed, the domed head on this drawing seems to indicate this is a misidentified wooly mammoth.
A Circus Elephant?
Finally, the Portland Press Herald printed the Associated Press account of January 6, 2007, via their article “Tusk from sea investigated.”
Most of the details are in the other articles, but a few tidbits – such as the recent story about that old chestnut of an-out-of-place “circus elephant” – are new:
…Fisherman Tim Winchenbach of Cushing brought the piece home to his wife, Michelle, who began researching to see if it could be from a wooly mammoth. “I was looking for some different pictures to compare it to, and there’s been a couple it looks very similar to,” she told WCSH-TV in Portland. “So it kind of reinforced our thoughts it could be (a mammoth).”
Remains of the extinct breed of elephant, which had a covering of long hair, have been found in North America, Europe, Africa and Asia. Mammoths lived from 1.6 million years ago to around 10,000 years ago.
The tusk of an elephant unearthed in 1959 by a man digging in a pit in Scarborough was first believed to be that of a circus elephant that was destroyed in 1816.
However, after the tusk was acquired by the Maine State Museum, carbon dating indicated it was a mammoth’s.
Professor Bill Glanz of the University of Maine’s Department of Biological Sciences said a wooly mammoth or mastodon could have lived in the Georges Bank area 13,000 years ago. The animals survived the ice age when that area was dry land and New England was covered by thick ice, he said.
Michelle Winchenbach is waiting for answers about her husband’s find, but she already feels the thrill of holding something so old.
“Just the thought that I’ve held something that’s potentially 10,000 years old or older, that nobody else in the world touched before us, I find it really fascinating,” she said. “I think it’s great.”
Mastodon Versus Mammoth
Description American mastodons are sometimes confused with their relatives- elephants and mammoths. All three, placed within the order Proboscidea, are large, heavy mammals with distinctive flexible trunks and tusks.
Mastodons were smaller than mammoths. Similar in size to modern-day elephants, with a height of 7 feet (2.1 meters) for females or 10 feet (3.1 meters) for males, adult mastodons weighed as much as 6 tons (5443 kg).
American mastodons had low-domed heads, unlike the higher-domed heads found in mammoths and modern-day Indian elephants. The tusks were less curved than those of mammoths but larger and longer than elephant tusks. Young male mastodons often displayed a short pair of secondary tusks in the lower jaw that were lost as they matured.
However, the most distinctive feature differentiating mastodons from mammoths is their cheek teeth. Unlike modern elephants and extinct mammoths, the mastodon had molars that featured distinctive, cone-like cusps. Mammoths had flat, ridged molars that look like washboards, totally different in appearance from mastodon teeth. These unusual cusped teeth give the mastodon its name, derived from the Greek (“mastos” for breast and odon(t) for tooth).
From the San Diego Natural History Museum.
Although their skeletons differ from each other as much as each differs from the modern elephant, the easiest distinction between them is in their teeth. Mastodons have teeth with blunted points, with which they easily crushed sticks and twigs in their diet—and for this reason some early paleontologists believed the mastodon to be a carnivore, and because of its great size, perhaps even a predatory one. The teeth of mammoths are flatter, with undulating, parallel ridges well suited for grinding the grasses that comprised its diet.
From Discovering Lewis and Clark by Earle E. Spamer and Richard M. McCourt.