Miners Discover Seven-Foot Mammoth Tusk in North Dakota

After coal mine workers found the 50-pound specimen, paleontologists studied the site and uncovered more than 20 additional bones

Paleontologists working at dig site in North Dakota
Paleontologists say the collection of uncovered bones likely represents the most complete mammoth ever found in North Dakota. North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources

Coal miners in North Dakota have uncovered a seven-foot-long, 50-pound mammoth tusk that’s been buried for thousands of years.

They found the fossilized specimen—which paleontologists estimate to be between 10,000 and 100,000 years old—while excavating an old streambed at the Freedom Mine near Beulah, North Dakota. The 45,000-acre surface mine, which is owned by North American Coal, is located near the center of the state.

Miners unearthed the tusk in May, according to a December announcement from the North Dakota Department of Natural Resources. Since then, paleontologists have been further exploring the site. They’ve found more than 20 additional mammoth bones so far, including parts of hips, ribs, a tooth and a shoulder blade.

Mammoth tusk on the ground
The seven-foot-long tusk survived the miners' heavy equipment. North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources

A shovel operator working at night on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend was the first to notice a bit of white poking out from a scoop of dirt, as he dropped it into a dump truck. Later, a bulldozer driver spotted the same flash of white in the truck bed—and instead of proceeding with flattening the dirt, he decided to take a closer look.

That’s when the miners recognized the full gravity of their discovery, which came from roughly 40 feet below the surface. The team stopped working and called in researchers with the North Dakota Geological Survey, the State Historical Society of North Dakota and the Bureau of Land Management.

Miners are trained to keep an eye out for possible fossils and other historic artifacts while they work, writes the Washington Post’s Daniel Wu. And, this time, that training paid off.

Based on the heavy equipment the mine workers were using, “it’s miraculous that [the tusk] came out pretty much unscathed,” says Jeff Person, a paleontologist with the North Dakota Geologic Survey, to the Associated Press’ Jack Dura.

The remains are far from a full skeleton, but researchers believe they represent the most complete mammoth ever discovered in North Dakota, per the publication. That’s because the remnants of mammoths and other now-extinct creatures that once roamed the state were largely destroyed by ice sheets and glaciers. Such fossils suffered less damage in other places, such as South Dakota, Texas, Alaska and Canada.

“For whatever reason, we haven’t found a lot of good specimens out of [North Dakota],” says Clint Boyd, senior paleontologist for the North Dakota Geological Survey, to the Washington Post. “Most specimens are just a bone or two or three, and that’s it.”

For now, the tusk and bones are safely wrapped in plastic to prevent them from drying out at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum in Bismarck. North American Coal plans to donate the artifacts to the state, where they will be used for educational outreach programs and put on display.

“The goal is to ensure as many people as possible can see this specimen and learn what it tells us about life in North Dakota during the Ice Age,” per the statement.

Paleontologists have not yet determined which mammoth species the fossils represent. They hope to do so eventually, but first, they must clean and stabilize the bones—a long, slow process.

Mammoths are the ancestors of modern elephants. Researchers believe they arrived in North America roughly 100,000 years ago by crossing the Bering Land Bridge. These behemoth creatures roamed the planet for tens of thousands of years during the last Ice Age but went extinct roughly 10,000 to 4,000 years ago, likely due to climate change and human hunting.

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