Fossil of the month from the KGS paleontological collection: mammoth tooth
This specimen is a fossil mammoth molar or cheek tooth. It might not look like a tooth, but it is. Mammoths (Mammothus columbi) were a type of ice age (Pleistocene Epoch) elephant. They are sometimes called wooly mammoths, because preserved specimens with long hair have been found in permafrost in Siberia. Mammoths once lived across much of North America and northern Asia. This specimen was found in Boone County by Winney Dooley and donated to the Kentucky Geological Survey for her children. (See pg. 4 of this KGS newsletter.) The tooth is on display at the Kentucky Geological Survey, where it is enjoyed by the public. The tooth may have been eroded from deposits at Big Bone Lick, a state park in Kentucky, and washed downstream. Pleistocene layers containing similar fossils at Big Bone Lick and other ice age deposits in the Ohio River Valley are 10,000 to 12,000 years old.
Mammoths and mastodons are two types of ice age elephants that lived in what is now Kentucky. They are sometimes confused with each other. In general, adult mammoths were larger than adult mastodons. Adult mammoths also had longer tusks than adult mastodons. There is considerable overlap between the two animals, however, because of differences in size between males and females and between juveniles and adults in both types of prehistoric elephants. A real distinction between the two, regardless of age or sex, is the differences in their molar or cheek teeth. Mammoth molars had broad crowns with small linear ridges, somewhat like a giant file, and were ideal for grinding food such as tall grasses. In contrast, the crowns on mastodon molars had high cones with cusps, which were better for breaking and chewing leaves and twigs.
Mammoth and mastodon teeth have been found at several localities in Kentucky including Blue Licks and Big Bone Lick. It has been called the birthplace of North American paleontology because it was the site of the first purposeful excavation for finding and preserving fossil remains in North America. Both Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson studied fossil bones from Big Bone Lick. Ice age bones from Big Bone Lick are in many of the world’s most famous natural history museums. More locally, bones from Big Bone Lick are on public display at the state park, the Cincinnati Natural History Museum, and the Kentucky Geological Survey at the University of Kentucky. Mammoth and mastodon teeth have been found in other parts of Kentucky, mostly in areas along or draining into the Ohio River.