Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

tags: , , , , ,

Paleontologist Jim Westgate, a research associate with the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory at the University of Texas Memorial Museum, shows off a newly discovered fossil tooth of a mammoth that he found in Caplen, Texas, in the debris from Hurricane Ike. Westgate believes the fossil discovered in the Ike-damaged debris is from a Columbian mammoth.

Image: Brian Sattler, Lamar University.

Hurricanes are very destructive, make no mistake about that. But imagine the surprise when Lamar University professor, Dorothy Sisk, returned to her home on the Bolivar Peninsula of Texas after Hurricane Ike had passed through. Together with her friend and colleague, Lamar University paleontologist Jim Westgate, they found a fossil tooth in her front yard. It almost makes it bearable to realize that Sisk’s beachfront home had been completely destroyed.

“She picked up a couple things,” said Westgate, who volunteered to drive Sisk to her home in his pickup. “We searched through a little scrub forest across the highway and she recognized a few things.”

As they picked through the splintered pilings and broken concrete remains of Sisk’s home in the small Texan town of Caplen, they found the fossil tooth of a mammoth, Mammuthus columbi.

“This is the first one I’ve found in 19 years,” Westgate said. “People bring in pieces and parts from the beach for me to identify, and I haven’t seen one in this good a condition.”

Like modern elephants, mammoths grew a total of six sets of teeth during their lifetime, ejecting worn teeth “like a shotgun, loading a newly formed tooth in its place,” Westgate said. The discovered tooth is unworn, so it was either newly erupted or a “tooth in waiting” when the animal died, Westgate said.

The fossil tooth is the size of a football, weighs six pounds, and has many ridges on its chewing surface, so it resembles bread slices that were squeezed together. Columbian mammoths and their close relatives, mastodons, ranged throughout North America until roughly 10,000 years ago.

Mammoth and mastodon teeth are easily distinguished, according to Westgate. Mastodon teeth are bumpy, and resemble a series of steep mountains and deep valleys, whereas mammoth teeth are flatter and well-suited to grinding. This difference in chewing surfaces is due to dietary differences: mastodons probably ate leaves, bark and fruits, whereas mammoths were predominately grazers.

The tooth will be added to the fossil collections at Texas Memorial Museum in Austin.

“Dorothy’s address will actually be the site locality for this specimen,” said Westgate. “Normally we don’t have house addresses for our fossil localities.”

More than 1 million people fled the Texas coast to escape Hurricane Ike.


Lamar University Press Release.


  1. #1 JPS
    October 3, 2008

    Its good to see some good news from the Texas coast, even if its something small. I was an undergrad in Galveston and my old school is not going reopen until the spring semester the earliest.

    I have not been on the Gulf coast in a dozen years. When I was living there I knew people from Bolivar and I wonder if they still lived there when Ike hit.

  2. #2 Cortney Grubbs
    December 15, 2009

    I found a bone or something on Crystal Beach.. Who can I contact to find out more information?


New comments have been disabled.