Last Friday, February 14, the Cascade neighborhood got a great big Valentine from the past when an 8.5-foot Ice-Age mammoth tusk was unearthed from its resting place of 20,000 years.
Excavation for a new apartment building was halted earlier that week when a construction team came upon the Flintstones-worthy fossil 30 feet down. A team of paleontologists from Seattle’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture literally leapt into the void, working through the night to ease muck away from the massive tooth and coat it in plaster-coated burlap prior to removal. Misfortune struck when the team ran out of plaster at 10 p.m., but staff at the Sodo Home Depot came to the rescue, opening its doors after hours to donate 100 pounds of plaster to the effort.
The next day, crowds of onlookers looked on in fascination as the tusk was painstakingly lifted by crane from its ancient bed to a truck waiting to whisk it away to the Burke Museum.
Directly next to the excavation site is Bright Horizons preschool, where students, staff and parents watched the excavation transpire, chanting “Dig it up!” to cheer on the work and turn it into a teaching moment. In keeping with the Valentine’s Day theme, the students strung a banner on a balcony overlooking the site, hand-painted with the words, “Wooly U Be My Valentine?” Local and national press alike plied the public with frequent updates, while the twitterverse was aflutter with conjecture.
Genetically speaking, Ice-Age mammoths are prehistoric pachyderms − kissing cousins to elephants - that roamed here from Asia about 2 million years ago. They became extinct when the glaciers began scooting away from this part of the world; but before that, the mammoth likely spent his days calmly chomping the tall grass and small conifers that then made up this region. While it possibly washed up here from further afield via glacial runoff, the tusk was located with a nearby “marker horizon,” a dark horizontal fossil layer that helps date the piece.
The Cascade mammoth was big – perhaps 12 feet at the shoulder. His spectacular tusks curved down from his face, then tipped upward at the ends. And now we have one to remember him by – the largest, most complete tusk ever found in the state.
For now, the waterlogged fossil will slowly dry out at the Burke over the next year while scientists gently peel away the plaster. The Cascade land owner has donated the tusk to the Burke museum, where it will reside permanently.
Christian Sidor, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Burke, said, “The discovery of a mammoth tusk in South Lake Union is a rare opportunity to directly study Seattle’s ancient natural history.”
And it goes to show what we already knew about SLU – even if you start out from someplace else, the neighborhood is always happy to see you show up here.
Posted by DiscoverSLU on Feb. 26
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