Child Finds 12,000-Year-Old Mastodon Tooth on Nature Walk

While out on a nature hike, one might find interesting rocks, pretty flowers or fun leaves to collect. But for 6-year-old Julian Gagnon, finding a 12,000-year-old mastodon tooth in Michigan was the highlight of his walk back in early September.

He was out with his parents at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve in Rochester Hills, Michigan. His mother, Mary Gagnon told MLive that he was on a quest to find "a dragon's tooth."

Sure enough, Julian called out to his parents that he found a dragon's tooth as he was wading through a creek at the park.

His parents allowed him to bring it home with them and MLive reported that after taking a closer look at the so-called "dragon's tooth," they found that the discovery felt like a real tooth of some kind.

They sent it to be evaluated by museum scientists at the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology where scientists verified its authenticity.

"These things are so valuable in the long term for research about how the animals live," Adam Rountrey, the museum's research collection manager, told MLive.

Rountrey told Newsweek examining some of the discoveries sent to the museum is the "fun part of the job." He explained that the museum receives about one discovery each day, many of which are common invertebrate fossils. Occasionally, museum officials will have the opportunity to examine rarer fossils.

Judging by the tooth's characteristics, which included its size and "tall bumps" on the crowns, the team could link it to a mastodon.

Mastodon Skeleton
A child recently came across the tooth of a mastodon in a creek in Michigan. An illustration of the skeleton of a mastodon. Bettmann/Getty Images

Dr. Sue Neal, the executive director of Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve, told Newsweek that in her 20 years of working with the nature center, this is the first time a discovery like this occurred.

She said the family was exploring the preserve when they found the tooth. When they discovered it was a tooth, Neal said they told her of the find.

While Neal said the preserve typically dissuades people from digging through the property to find specimens or remains because it can disturb the plants, she said the family did the right thing by informing the nature preserve.

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a mastodon is an extinct mammal whose remains are common and often well preserved.

They ate leaves but their teeth are much smaller and less complex than those in elephants. They were also shorter than modern elephants and their ears were smaller.

"It is likely that mortality caused by rapid changes in climate combined with human hunting pressure contributed to their extinction," Britannica's information page on mastodons read.

Rountrey told MLive that after Julian's discovery, he and his fellow researchers searched the creek for more mastodon remains but they weren't able to find any. Though he was unsuccessful, Rountrey said many paleontologists find new specimens when an individual happens to stumble across them in everyday life.

"Mammoth and mastodon fossils are relatively rare in Michigan, but compared to other places in the United States, there actually have been more occurrences," he told the news outlet.

Rountrey told Newsweek that it was an unlikely find, but said he noticed Julian is "very observant."

"He's an observant person who would notice something like this," he said.

Part of the tooth is missing, according to Rountrey, but it is otherwise in good shape. He said it was fairly well-preserved and it likely was not exposed to repeated wetting and drying.

When Julian officially donates the tooth for research purposes, Rountrey said it will be slowly dried to avoid fractures, and it will be stored in a temperature and humidity-controlled environment.

Based on the tooth, Rountrey suggested that it was a first molar, meaning it belonged to a mastodon in its teens. The oldest a mastodon would reach was between 50 to 60 years of age.

Neal said this type of discovery is exciting for the nature preserve, as well as for Julian and other families.

"It's the perfect example of keeping young people excited about science," she said.

Elsewhere in the United States, a teenager came across a fossilized mastodon tooth on the banks of a Missouri river in late August.

Newsweek reported Ira Johnson was searching for antiquities along the Grand River when he saw a "big rock." His mother contacted professors from the University of Iowa and they verified it belonged to an American mastodon.

Johnson told the North Missourian that his uncle also found a martial mastodon tooth in the same area about five years prior.

MLive reported that Julian donated the tooth to the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology. He will meet with paleontologists in October for a tour of the university's Ann Arbor Research Museums Center.

Updated 10/05/2021, 5:32 p.m. ET: This story has been updated with comments from Adam Rountrey and Dr. Sue Neal.