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Ancient Mammoth Teeth Discovered in Socorro County

By: Andi Sullivan, Paleontological Coordinator, BLM Socorro Field Office

In May 2012, in the sweltering desert heat outside Socorro, New Mexico, archaeologists and paleontologists worked side by side to extract two fragile mammoth teeth, believed to be from the late Pleistocene Epoch, which ended roughly 11,500 years ago.

Bruce Huckell, Professor of Archaeology at University of New Mexico (UNM), Gary Morgan, Curator of Paleontology at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History (NMMNH), and Philip Gensler, Regional Paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), extracted the mammoth teeth, which were discovered during an archaeological inventory in the summer of 2011.

When the paleontological material was originally found, it was unknown what the fossilized fragments were. However, shortly after the discovery, a field visit was made to the site and it was determined that the exposed material were fragments of a mammoth tooth. It wasn’t obvious at that time what other parts might be present below the surface, and thus efforts to protect and remove the fragile fossils began.

In early spring 2012, Huckell and UNM graduate student Chris Merriman, at the request of the BLM, collected tooth fragments on the ground surface and tested the area to better understand the extent of the mammoth remains. This testing revealed that there were actually two teeth present, and confirmed that they were, in fact, mammoth molars most likely belonging to a Columbian Mammoth - known to paleontologists as Mammuthus columbi.

The two mammoth teeth were carefully uncovered, encased in plaster jackets, and extracted from the ground. Once they were removed, the ground below the teeth was tested to see if any additional mammoth bones were present; none were found.

The encased mammoth teeth then traveled to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, where the sediments will be carefully removed and the teeth will be hardened and repaired. The NMMNH is the designated repository for paleontological resources found on BLM-administered lands, so the teeth will remain in their collection. Further research and analysis of the teeth could reveal additional information about the mammoth and about the time period in which it lived.

The efforts and contributions of time and labor by Bruce Huckell, Chris Merriman, Gary Morgan, and Dave Love have been invaluable to this effort to preserve and protect these important paleontological resources on public lands in Socorro County. The BLM’s new Regional Paleontologist, Philip Gensler, has been integral in the planning, field testing, removal and preservation of the teeth. Many thanks to the BLM Socorro Field Office staff who helped with the protection, planning, and support of this project. And special thanks to Jeff Fassett, Albuquerque District Project Coordinator, who discovered the fragments during the archaeological inventory.

photo of mammoth teeth
Mammoth teeth from the late Pleistocene Epoch were discovered on BLM-administered public land outside Socorro, NM.

photo of paleontologists
Archaeologists Bruce Huckell and Chris Merriman helped identify the teeth as likely belonging to a Columbian Mammoth.

photo of excavation
The mammoth teeth were excavated and taken to the New Mexico Museum of Natural History.

depiction of a Columbian Mammoth
A depiction of a Columbian Mammoth (photo credit: Sergiodlarosa, Wikipedia Commons)