Mammoth discovery! 20,000-year-old tooth found in river

Ref shs simon_mammoth_tooth copy

Ref shs simon_mammoth_tooth copy - Credit: Archant

A BIODIVERSITY boffin was left gob-smacked when he stumbled across a 20,000-year-old mammoth tooth while carrying out a routine task at work.

The massive molar close-up

The massive molar close-up - Credit: Archant

Simon McHugh was checking erosion to the banks of the flood-hit River Otter near Newton Poppleford when he noticed the massive molar sitting on the bed.

Experts at London’s Natural History Museum have confirmed the Environment Agency officer’s unusual find as dating from the last Ice Age.

The owner of the land where it was discovered has agreed to donate the tooth to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.

But before it can go on display, the molar must undergo special preservation. If it dries out there is a danger it could fall apart.


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The section of riverbank where Simon made his once-in-a-lifetime discovery was heavily eroded during last year’s floods.

It is believed the tooth was washed into the river as previously buried areas of gravel bed were exposed.

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“I was out with some colleagues assessing bank erosion near when I saw what looked like a big tooth lying in about a foot of water on the riverbed gravels. It was only after I retrieved it and examined the tooth more closely that I realised I’d found something special,’ said biodiversity technical officer Simon.

“The tooth has very good definition which would have been lost if it had been transported far down the river.”

Simon thinks the item has ‘petrified’ and absorbed silica and other minerals after lying buried in the ground for thousands of years. This has made it heavier than when it was ‘in use’.

Weighing a hefty 2.2kg and measuring 20cm in length, 7cm wide and 13cm deep, the tooth is a right upper molar from a mammoth that was approximately 20 years old when it died.

Mammoths were relatively long lived with an average life expectancy of 60 to 80 years.

Experts have confirmed it is a rare find. The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter has 11 other mammoth teeth in their collection, but only two are from Devon sites. The others are from North America and other parts of Europe.

This latest discovery is the first in Devon since the 1800s and is thought to be between 20,000 and 70,000-years-old.

Mammoths finally died out around 3,000 years ago. Their extinction is thought to have been caused by climate change and hunting.

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