A Florida fossil hunter made the discovery of a lifetime earlier this month when he pulled a mammoth jawbone from the bottom of a river.
John Kreatsoulas is no stranger to finding very old bones and teeth: He runs Fossil Junkies Dig and Dive Charters, a tour company that takes guests on fossil-hunting excursions in southwest Florida. But even he was surprised to find such a rare, well-preserved mandible under the water.
“You can hunt your whole life and not find anything like this,” Kreatsoulas tells NBC2 News’ Rachel Whelan.
Kreatsoulas was diving in the Peace River near Arcadia, Florida, in early November when he touched something he initially thought was a log. But it wasn’t a log—it was an ancient, 60-pound jawbone. He also discovered a pair of mammoth molars.
It’s not clear what type of mammoth the jaw once belonged to. However, Kreatsoulas suspects it’s roughly 10,000 years old.
The fossil may have come from a Columbian mammoth, a behemoth creature that roamed North America between 2.6 million and 11,700 years ago, reports Live Science’s Lydia Smith.
Based on fossil discoveries, scientists think Columbian mammoths lived throughout southern North America, including in Mexico and possibly as far south as Costa Rica, per the National Park Service. They could weigh up to 22,000 pounds and may have measured up to 13 feet tall at the shoulders. These giant animals, which are related to modern-day elephants, died off between 13,000 and 10,000 years ago.
Scientists long suspected that Columbian mammoths evolved earlier than their smaller, hairier cousins, the woolly mammoths. However, a 2021 analysis of DNA suggests woolly mammoths evolved first and mated with another unknown lineage to produce Columbian mammoths, which were a hybrid species.
Whatever the species this fossil belongs to, Kreatsoulas plans to take it to a restoration company in Tampa, where he hopes staff will be able to conduct radiocarbon dating on the bone and re-attach the molars to the jaw. He is also registering the fossil with the state of Florida, which may determine it belongs in a museum. But if not, Kreatsoulas plans to add it to the rest of his collection on display in his home’s living room, he tells NBC2 News.
To reduce his chance of encountering alligators, Kreatsoulas only dives during the winter, when water temperatures are lower and the dangerous creatures are less active. Through his business, he takes amateur fossil hunters on chartered dives in the Peace River and the Gulf of Mexico, where they often find fossilized megalodon teeth.
The Peace River has produced other impressive finds, too. In 2021, fossil hunters Derek Demeter and Henry Sadler were scuba diving in the waterway when they unearthed a huge mammoth leg bone. The femur weighed roughly 50 pounds and measured four feet long.