Researchers recover ancient mammoth tusk during deep-sea expedition

A team of researchers from UC Santa Cruz, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, and University of Michigan are studying the tusk retrieved from deep waters off the California coast

partial tusk on seafloor
Randy Prickett (left) pilots MBARI’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Doc Ricketts while senior scientist Steven Haddock (right) documents the mammoth tusk before beginning the retrieval operation. (Image: Darrin Schultz © 2021 MBARI)

The ocean’s dark depths hold many secrets. During an expedition aboard the R/V Western Flyer in 2019, ROV pilot Randy Prickett and scientist Steven Haddock made a peculiar observation. While exploring a seamount located 300 kilometers (185 miles) offshore of California and 3,070 meters (10,000 feet) deep, the team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) spotted what looked like an elephant’s tusk.

Only able to collect a small piece at the time, the scientists returned in July 2021 to retrieve the complete specimen. Now, Haddock and researchers from UC Santa Cruz and the Museum of Paleontology at the University of Michigan are examining the tusk.

The researchers have confirmed that the tusk—about one meter (just over three feet) in length—is from a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). The cold, high-pressure environment of the deep sea uniquely preserved the tusk, giving researchers the opportunity to study it in greater detail. Computed tomography (CT) scans will reveal the full three-dimensional internal structure of the tusk and more information about the animal’s history, such as its age.

The team believes it could be the oldest well-preserved mammoth tusk recovered from this region of North America. Dating of the tusk is being done by the UCSC Geochronology Lab led by Terrence Blackburn, associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences.

Researchers at the UCSC Paleogenomics Lab led by Beth Shapiro, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, plan to sequence the ancient DNA embedded in the specimen, which could provide valuable insight about how mammoths colonized North America. Katherine Moon, a postdoctoral researcher in Shapiro’s lab, accompanied Haddock on the July cruise to retrieve the complete specimen.

“You start to ‘expect the unexpected’ when exploring the deep sea, but I’m still stunned that we came upon the ancient tusk of a mammoth,” said Haddock. “We are grateful to have a multidisciplinary team analyzing this remarkable specimen, including a geochronologist, oceanographers, and paleogenomicists from UCSC and paleontologists at the University of Michigan. Our work examining this exciting discovery is just beginning and we look forward to sharing more information in the future.”

Shapiro and Moon will recover ancient DNA preserved within the matrix of the tusk, which they will compare to DNA that has already been recovered from other mammoths. “Specimens like this present a rare opportunity to paint a picture both of an animal that used to be alive and of the environment in which it lived,” Shapiro said. “Mammoth remains from continental North America are particularly rare, and so we expect that DNA from this tusk will go far to refine what we know about mammoths in this part of the world.”

“This specimen’s deep-sea preservational environment is different from almost anything we have seen elsewhere,” added University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher, who specializes in the study of mammoths and mastodons. “Other mammoths have been retrieved from oceans, but generally not from depths of more than a few tens of meters.”

Fisher and his U-M colleagues will use their knowledge of the structure and composition of mammoth tusks to analyze CT scans of the specimen. The other members of the Museum of Paleontology team are Adam N. Rountrey, Michael D. Cherney, Ethan A. Shirley and Scott G. Beld.

The ocean represents 99 percent of the space where life can exist on this planet and yet we still know very little about it. As interest in exploiting the deep sea by mining for valuable metals has grown—with the potential to place many marine animals in harm’s way—this surprising discovery, hidden on the seafloor for eons, serves as a fragile reminder of the many remaining mysteries worthy of our protection.