Paleontologists look inside the Seattle mammoth tusk

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by JOAN KINSEY / Evening Magazine

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KING5.com

Posted on March 17, 2014 at 8:52 AM

Updated Monday, Mar 17 at 12:48 PM

It's similar to an overdue trip to the dentist for a mammoth tusk that hasn't been brushed or examined for thousands of years saidpaleontologist Christen Sidor. "It really could be anything from 16,000 to 60,000."

Since the tusk hasn't seen the light of day for a long time, naturally it shows signs of decay. A team of paleontologists from the Burke Museum could see that as they drilled three small holes into the fossil. 

"The outside of the tusk was nice and firm, but as soon as you got inside, there was sort of this mush," said Sidor. 

The core samples taken from the tusk will be sent to a lab in Florida for carbon dating. Sidor hopes it will shed light on unanswered questions.

He said, "Knowing the precise age will help scientists with all sorts of other research questions."

What is known so far: The tusk is eight feet, six inches long.  It probably belonged to a Columbian Mammoth about the size of a bull elephant and it is a rare find.

MORE: Help name the Mammoth

"I mean it's nice and complete and the fact that it comes from downtown makes it truly special," Sidor said.

In February a construction crew working in South lake Union unearthed the mammoth tusk.  It’s the largest ever discovered in Seattle. Immediately a team of scientists from the Burke Museum jumped in to save it.

"As soon as we found the tusk," explained Sidor, "we knew it was waterlogged and right now the conservation's process is trying to let that dry out as slowly as possible."

On Tuesday, March 11, that process reached a turning point as scientists covered the tusk in a security blanket of paper towels, heavy duty foil, and plaster-soaked burlap.

With time the tusk will safely dry out and be preserved for the future. Sidor says it could take one to two years. "So, we will have data points to tell us how fast that is drying and maybe it will be faster and maybe it will be slower.

For now the tusk returns to darkness.  Still it can be seen entombed and on display at the Burke Museum during the last three weekends in March.

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