Plymouth State Professor Makes Mammoth Fossil Discovery
Plymouth State University biology professor Fred Prince holds a woolly mammoth tooth he discovered in a former gravel pit in Thornton, N.H., in April. About ten years ago, Prince found another while fishing in a remote Campton, N.H., stream. That tooth was tossed aside. (Plymouth State University photograph)
About an hour’s drive from Lebanon, in a biology professor’s home in the White Mountains in Campton, N.H., there is a refrigerator stocked with a case of Canadian beer, perhaps some food, and the only confirmed evidence that woolly mammoths roamed what is now the Granite State more than 11,000 years ago.
The treasured fossil — a fragment of a tooth of one of the great beasts — was discovered by the professor, Plymouth State University’s Fred Prince, in a Thornton, N.H., gravel pit in April. Using photos, an expert in South Dakota later confirmed the find, the first within New Hampshire’s borders.
“I guess the main thing is just the novelty,” Prince said on Wednesday, describing the excitement around his discovery. “I’ve looked as hard as I can through literature, I’ve talked to people. I’ve just seen no evidence whatsoever of anything from New Hampshire.”
Probably older than the Old Man of the Mountain, the iconic Cannon Mountain rock formation that was created by a retreating glacier about 11,000 years ago and crumbled in 2003, the tooth fragment is one of just a few confirmed woolly mammoth fossils found in New England.
It follows a tooth and tusk excavated near Mount Holly, Vt., in 1848 during railroad construction and a partial skeleton found in 1959 near Scarborough, Maine, according to a release from PSU. The closest finding to New Hampshire’s mainland was off the coast of Rye, N.H., near the Isles of Shoals, in 2013.
For Prince, 64, the story started 10 years ago, during a casual day of fly-fishing at one of Campton’s remote streams, when he noticed a smooth, strange object in the water. He picked it up, turned it around in his hand a few times and tossed it back into the gravel.
Later, during research about climate change, he became interested in the ice ages and, subsequently, woolly mammoths. He decided to invest in a woolly mammoth molar and a partial molar from the Netherlands, and in January, the items arrived protected by cushioning material.
When he peeled back the wrapping, that day from 10 years earlier came screeching back into his memory.
“I picked that up and I almost fell on the floor because that is exactly what I’d looked at over a decade earlier,” he said. “I said a bad word or two. To me, this kind of thing is a big deal.”
Devastated to realize that he may have thrown away such a treasure a decade earlier, Prince set out on a mission to find another, which is how he came across the inches-long fragment in the Upper Pemigewasset Valley gravel pit in April.
He sent photos of the specimen to Dr. Larry Agenbroad, director of The Mammoth Site in South Dakota, who confirmed it as a tooth fragment from a woolly mammoth.
About two-thirds of the specimen was then sent to a lab in Arizona to try to date its origins, but the lab found the collagen to be too deteriorated for its methods, Prince said. He said he is exploring other options to try to determine its age, and the last third of the fragment remains in his fridge.
The woolly mammoth is closely related to the modern Asian elephant, but was more comparable in size to the African elephant, at about 9 to 11 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing roughly six tons, according to information provided by PSU. Its tusks could reach 15 feet long.
Derived from another line of mammoth species more than 200,000 years ago, the last woolly mammoths went extinct worldwide about 11,000 years ago, with the exception of a small colony that survived on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean, until 4,000 years ago, according to the school. Their tundra-like habitat ranged from northern Eurasia to North America.
At the Montshire Museum in Norwich, Vt., Science Educator Rebecca Haynes — a paleontology enthusiast who spent part of her honeymoon at the South Dakotan Mammoth Site — was thrilled to learn of Prince’s discovery.
The museum keeps a full woolly mammoth tooth, which is about 10 inches long, and a half-tooth in its fossil collection, she said.
“The idea that you can find a tooth of an extinct member of the elephant family — it just reminds me of those early historic finds of mammoths … and how mythical and how surprising (they are),” she said.
Finding things like fossils locally, Haynes said, can help people of all ages to feel more engaged in what they are learning about. She said families are often asking her where they can go out and find fossils, but New England is tough, she said, because of the states’ geological makeup.
New Hampshire in particular, she said, is lacking in sedimentary rock, which is where fossils most often form.
“It’s not a fossil-rich state,” she said. “Finding any fossil specimen in New Hampshire is an amazing thing.”
Maggie Cassidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3220.