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Monday, August 11, 2014

Fishing? Hiking? Nah – I’m going woolly-mammoth-tooth-hunting

David Brooks

Lots of neat things can be found in New Hampshire, but fossils aren’t among them.

As you’ll recall from Earth Science class (do they still call it Earth Science, I wonder?) fossils are found in sedimentary rock, created by built-up sediment over very long periods of time. Sediments trap and preserve the bones, and a million years later we dig them up. ...

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Lots of neat things can be found in New Hampshire, but fossils aren’t among them.

As you’ll recall from Earth Science class (do they still call it Earth Science, I wonder?) fossils are found in sedimentary rock, created by built-up sediment over very long periods of time. Sediments trap and preserve the bones, and a million years later we dig them up.

But this is the Granite State, not the Limestone State. Granite is igneous rock, which is molten lava that has cooled, and bones don’t get preserved when covered by flowing magma. It’s not by accident that Roy Chapman Andrews, fossil-hunting hero from my childhood and role model for the Indiana Jones character, traveled to Mongolia rather than Mont Vernon. Even more recent fossils, from Ice Age mammals, aren’t around because our acidic soil dissolves them over millennia.

So any news about fossils in New Hampshire is news, indeed.

That explains why Plymouth State University biology professor Fred Prince got so much attention from his discovery of a woolly mammoth tooth in the Upper Pemigewasett Valley – that, and the underlying story.

A decade ago, Prince found a funny looking rock while fishing in Campton and eventually tossed it away. In January he saw a mammoth molar and realized the connection to that funny looking rock.

“I kind of stewed all winter when I realized what I had thrown away,” he said in a recent interview.

He vowed to find another one and in April, as snow started to melt in the North Country, he hit the woods.

“I found an old skidder trail, checked that out. Then I went back another time to another (place),” he said. “The third place I went out - I had only searched maybe an hour each time – I was there no more than a half-hour when I found it.”

This is ridiculously lucky, or brilliant, or something. As the accompanying photo shows, this tooth doesn’t look like a tooth, it looks like an interesting fist-sized rock – and the White Mountains have umpty-squidillion interesting fist-sized rocks. To head out and find the tooth after about two total hours of searching is amazing.

How amazing?

“Since then, I have looked at 50 million pieces of river gravel – and nothing,” Prince admitted.

This is the first confirmed mammoth fossil on New Hampshire soil, although a tooth was dredged up from seabed near the Isles of Shoals in 2013.

Woolly mammoths’ final days in New Hampshire may have overlapped the first days of humans, who arrived here as the glaciers receded around 14,000 years ago.

Mammoth remains are rare in New England. There was a tooth and a tusk excavated near Mt. Holly, Vt. in 1848 during railroad construction and a partial skeleton found in 1959 near Scarborough, Maine.

The tooth that Prince found was too decayed to be carbon-dated, so he has no sense of its age. He may send it to a lab or a different type of dating that examines the mineral known carbonate. That process would largely destroy the tooth, but it’s not in very good condition, anyway.

“There’s only a third left, and the collagen is gone,” he said.

I guess he’ll just have to find another one.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks on Twitter @granitegeek