A leisurely Memorial Day weekend stroll along a picturesque California beach unraveled a remarkable mystery when an unsuspecting woman stumbled upon an extraordinary find embedded in the sand: the fossilized tooth of an ancient mastodon. However, just as the astonishing relic appeared, it mysteriously vanished, leading to a whirlwind of media attention and an unlikely hero who ultimately facilitated its recovery.
Jennifer Schuh, captivated by the natural beauty of Rio Del Mar State Beach, located off Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz County, was taken aback when she noticed a peculiar object protruding from the sand on Friday. The tooth, measuring a foot in length, caught her attention, its weathered appearance reminiscent of something from a bygone era. Perplexed by her discovery, Schuh captured several photos and turned to social media, seeking assistance in identifying her curious find.
Amidst the digital crowd, Wayne Thompson, a paleontology collections advisor for the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, emerged as the voice of expertise. Upon analyzing the images, Thompson astutely identified the object as a worn molar from an adult Pacific mastodon, a species of elephant-like creatures that roamed the Earth long ago. Recognizing the magnitude of the discovery, Thompson urged Schuh to contact him promptly.
However, when Schuh and Thompson returned to the beach, their excitement swiftly turned to disappointment. The tooth had inexplicably vanished, leaving them bewildered and disheartened. A relentless weekend search proved fruitless, prompting Thompson to launch a desperate plea on social media, desperately seeking the recovery of this precious artifact. The fervor surrounding the tooth’s disappearance quickly escalated, capturing international attention and dominating headlines across the globe.
In a surprising twist, a glimmer of hope emerged on Tuesday when a local resident named Jim Smith from the neighboring town of Aptos contacted the museum. Smith, an avid jogger who frequently traversed the beach, revealed that he had serendipitously stumbled upon the tooth during one of his routine seaside runs. Uncertain of the significance of his discovery until he saw a photograph of the tooth in the news, Smith selflessly donated the relic to the museum, where it will be proudly displayed for all to marvel at from Friday through Sunday.
Determining the exact age of the tooth poses a challenge, as mastodons generally roamed California between 5 million to 10,000 years ago, according to the museum’s blog. However, Liz Broughton, the museum’s visitor experience manager, postulates that this particular specimen is likely less than 1 million years old, comparatively young in the realm of fossils. Broughton also noted that winter storms frequently unveil hidden treasures in the region, suggesting that the tooth may have been washed down to the ocean from higher elevations.
Schuh, elated by her role in unearthing ancient secrets within the tranquil beach area, decided not to keep the tooth for herself. However, her enthusiasm led her to purchase a replica mastodon tooth necklace from Amazon, a tangible memento of a profound encounter with history. Reflecting on her extraordinary experience, Schuh expressed her appreciation, remarking, “You don’t often get to touch something from history.”
Remarkably, this marks only the third locally recorded discovery of a mastodon fossil in the area. The museum already houses another mastodon tooth, alongside a skull unearthed by a teenager in 1980, both originating from Aptos Creek, which meanders into the vast ocean. The significance of this newfound treasure extends beyond its physical presence, as Felicia B. Van Stolk, the museum’s executive director, acknowledged, “We are thrilled about this exciting discovery and the implications it holds for our understanding of ancient life in our region.”