A woman walking a California beach over Memorial Day weekend noticed something unusual sticking out of the sand: a tooth from an ancient mastodon.
But then the fossil disappeared, only to be rediscovered after a media frenzy and a well-intentioned jogger.
Jennifer Schuh spotted the splinter protruding from the sand at the mouth of Aptos Creek at Rio Del Mar State Beach near Monterey Bay in Santa Cruz County, California’s Central Coast on Friday. A foot-long (0.30 m) tooth.
“I was on one side of the creek and this lady was talking to me on the other side and she said what’s under your feet,” Schuh recalled. “It looked kind of weird, like it was charred.”
Schuh wasn’t sure what she found. So she took some photos and posted them on Facebook, asking for help.
The answer comes from Wayne Thompson, paleontological collections consultant at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History.
Thompson determined that the object was the worn molar of an adult Pacific mastodon, an extinct elephant-like species.
“This is an extremely important discovery,” Thompson wrote, urging Schuch to call him.
But when they got back to the beach, that tooth was gone.
A weekend search failed to find it. Thompson then took to social media to ask for help in finding the artifact. The plea made international headlines.
On Tuesday, Jim Smith of nearby Aptos called the museum.
“I was delighted to get that call,” said Liz Broughton, the museum’s visitor experience manager. “Jim told us he stumbled across the tooth during a regular beach jog, but wasn’t sure what he had found until he saw a picture of it on the news.”
Smith donated the tooth to the museum, where it will be on display Friday through Sunday.
The age of the teeth is unknown. Mastodons typically roamed California about 5 million to 10,000 years ago, says a museum blog.
“We can safely say that this specimen is less than 1 million years old, which is relatively ‘new’ by fossil standards,” Broughton said in an email.
Broughton said winter storms are common for finding fossils in the area, and it may have washed down from a height into the ocean.
Schuh said she’s delighted her findings could help unlock ancient mysteries about this tranquil beach area. She didn’t keep the tooth, but she did hop on Amazon and order a replica mastodon necklace for herself.
“You don’t get access to historical stuff very often,” she said.
This is only the third discovery of mastodon fossils recorded locally. The museum also has another tooth and a skull, discovered by a teenager in 1980. It was found in the same Aptos stream that empties into the ocean.
“We’re excited about this exciting discovery and what it means for our understanding of ancient life in our region,” Felicia B. Van Stolk, the museum’s executive director, said in a statement.