To an ordinary eye, it may have looked like a giant wooden clasp. In fact, scientists spotted something unusual off the coast of California two years ago: a 3-foot (1-meter) long mammoth task.
A research team at the Monterey at Aquarium Research Institute discovered the task in 2019 while exploring an underwater mountain approximately 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) below the ocean’s surface.
Although other mammoth fossils have been plucked from the ocean before, it is rare for such objects to nestle along the deep sea floor, Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, said in a press release.
Scientists finally determined that the Task belonged to a young female Colombian mammoth, possibly one who lived in the Lower Paleolithic era, which spanned 2.7 million to 200,000 years ago. Researchers are still working to determine the exact age of the creature, along with more details about its life – including its diet and how often it reproduces.
“This is an ‘Indiana Jones’ mixed with ‘Jurassic Park’ moment,” Katie Moon, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Santa Cruz, said The New York Times.
The discovery may ultimately signal the presence of other ancient animal fossils hidden in the deep sea.
Scientists broke a piece of the mammoth task two years ago
Scientists from Monterey Bay did not intend to encounter a mammoth task in 2019. At the time, the research team was wandering the ocean with remote operated vehicles in search of deep-sea species.
“You start to ‘expect the unexpected’ when you explore the deep sea, but I’m still amazed that we came upon the ancient task of a mammoth,” said Steven Haddock, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, in the Pres. Release.
On a hanging, the scientists decided to retrieve the task from the ocean floor, but the top broke off and they were not able to collect the full specimen. The team later revisited the site in July to capture the remainder of the artifact. This time, they attached soft materials like sponges to the remote operated vehicle and favorably lifted the task with the vehicle’s robotic arms.
The full task gave scientists a much larger sample of mammoth DNA, which they used to determine its species.
Scientists believe that the Colombian mammoth was one of the largest creatures of its kind – probably the result of crossbreeding between a wally mammoth and another mammoth species. It probably used its tasks to defend itself and forage for food when it roamed North America up to 10,000 years ago.
The cool, high-pressure environment of the deep sea is ideal for preserving fossils
Scientists are now analyzing the task’s radioisotopes, or naturally decaying atoms, to just how long ago the mammoth lived. Since scientists know the rate at which isotopes like uranium and thorium decay, they can determine the age of the task based on how much of the isotopes are still present in the artifact.
Until now, this technique suggests the mammoth task is much more than 100,000 years old.
Scientists believe that the ocean is responsible for keeping the artifact in such a pristine condition.
Deep-sea temperatures are just above freezing – around 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit), on average. The refrigerator climate slows down the rate of fossil decay, just as putting food in the freezer prevents it from spoiling too soon.
Fossils also have a better chance of living in the deep sea’s high-pressure environment – the underwater pressure in the ocean’s deepest trenches is 1,100 times greater than it is at the water surface.
“If the task had been found on land, deciphering its history would not have been so simple,” said Terrence Blackburn, associate professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz.
This article was originally published by Business Insider.
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