Scientists prepare to excavate Seattle mammoth tusk

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by JOHN LANGELER / KING 5 News

Bio | Email | Follow: @jlangelerKING5

KING5.com

Posted on February 13, 2014 at 8:07 PM

Updated Friday, Feb 14 at 6:55 AM

SEATTLE -- Burke Museum paleontologists are preparing to excavate a fossilized mammoth tusk discovered at a Seattle construction site in the South Lake Union neighborhood earlier this week.

On Thursday, a team of four paleontologists from the Burke began digging around the tusk, which currently measures around seven feet long.

"It will definitely be the most complete (mammoth fossil) from Seattle," said Christian Sidor from the Burke.

"The extent of interest in the Seattle community is outstanding," he added.

While the tusk gets most of the attention, Sidor said the dirt around it is also useful to telling the full story of the mammoth it came from.

"We can paint a bigger picture than just a single tusk," he said.

The team spent the evening laying plaster around the tusk, raising its weight to around 500 pounds.  Progress was delayed when the plaster ran out, forcing the Burke Museum director to find more. She told KING 5 Home Depot donated 500 lbs. of the material for the task, even though the store was closed.

Once the tusk is prepared, the team will return Friday afternoon and encase the tusk in plaster, then lift it out with a crane. After it is removed, the tusk will be transported to the museum for further examination.

Based on preliminary examination and previous discoveries in the area, the museum believes the fossil is likely a tusk from a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), the state fossil. 

Burke paleontologists estimate that the tusk is around 22,000 years old, but could be up to 60,000 years old. Carbon dating the tusk would provide a definitive age.

The Burke Museum has currently has 25 mammoth fossils from King County in its collection. The tusk found in South Lake Union appears to be the most intact and largest tusk found in Seattle. 

Ice Age mammals that roamed the Seattle area include giant ground sloths (Megalonyx jeffersoni), like one found at SeaTac airport and currently on display at the Burke Museum, and extinct bison (Bison antiquus), among others.

Mammoths and mastodons lived in Washington until approximately 10,000 years ago.

Conditions were much colder and drier than today, and scientists say the region was probably covered with grassland and occasional pine trees.

KING 5's Liza Javier contributed to this report.

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