The Truth is In the Tooth

A newly found mastodon tusk in Orange County may reveal secrets of New York’s past

In September 2008, Glen Keeton and Chris Connallon were on a busman’s holiday. The two friends are archaeologists, and they were taking a canoe trip down the Wallkill River through the Black Dirt region of Orange County. The area is well known for fossils. “That was in the back of our heads,” Keeton says. “But really, it was a pleasure trip.”

They were paddling in the town of Westtown, where the Wallkill meets Tunkamoose Creek, when Keeton saw what he thought was a piece of tree trunk sticking out of the bank. He knew that the riverbank was made of prehistoric dirt, and anything found in it — even a tree — must be significant. So they turned their canoe around, paddled back, and took a closer look. This was no tree.

“I was 99 percent sure it was a mastodon tusk,” Keeton says. “Neither Chris nor I had ever found anything like this before. There was a lot of whooping and hollering.”

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Keeton contacted the Orange County chapter of the New York State Archaeological Association, which then contacted the New York State Museum in Albany. A team headed by Dr. Robert Feranec, the museum’s curator of vertebrate paleontology, confirmed the find and asked the landowner, Lester Lain, if they could dig it up. “It’s on his property, so it’s his tusk,” says Dr. Feranec. “But he was very agreeable in letting us have it. The value of these fossils isn’t in being stuck on someone’s mantel, but in the information in them. Lester recognized that.”

“My family has lived here since the mid-1700s, and we’ve always found arrowheads and such, but we never found anything like this before,” Lain says.

mastodon illustration

A fully grown mastodon (above) stood about eight to 10 feet from foot to shoulder, and weighed approximately four to six tons. The tusk, under restoration (below), will be preserved for further study

mastodon tusk

Bad weather that fall and flooding in the spring delayed excavation until this past summer. When the fossils were finally extracted, the team found not one, but two mastodon tusks, the larger of which measured a whopping nine and one-half feet. “For about a week, we thought is was the biggest ever found in New York,” says Dr. Feranec ­— until a museum in Buffalo reported it had a 10-foot tusk in its collection.

Size, however, isn’t what makes the find so important. This tusk is 100 percent complete, including the rarely found part that attached directly to the animal’s skull. “Tusks grow like tree rings, so you can learn this animal’s entire life story from birth to death,” says Dr. Feranec. “The chemicals we extract will give us an idea of its nutritional status and the food supply. The width of different rings indicates health status; whether it was starving or doing great that year. And that can hopefully help us piece together what humans were doing back then.”

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His team will also try to figure out why the mastodon went extinct about 10,000 years ago. “That, in turn, may help us with current species today,” he says.

However, all that information, including this animal’s exact age (Dr. Feranec’s guess: 13,000 years old) is still to come. First, the samples — literally thousands of fragments — are being restored, reassembled, and preserved in a lab at the Rensselaer Technology Park in Troy. That process could take up to a year. “We want to conserve the specimens first, so they survive a long time,” he says. “When we know it’s safe, then we will begin the research.”

Eventually, the tusk may end up alongside the state’s more famous speciman, the Cohoes Mastodon, which stood in the museum’s lobby for years until it was moved to the Exhibition Hall not long ago. But the Cohoes tusk is a paltry five feet in length. The new tusk, from the now-dubbed Tunkamoose Mastodon — now that’s a tooth.

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