Mystery Tooth Identified!
Earlier this year, I blogged about a fun request I received to identify a mysterious alien creature, which turned out to be (spoiler alert!) a guitarfish. That blog received widespread attention and generated a lot of interest and buzz….people like a good mystery. Well, friends, it’s happened again! Here’s the scoop on this latest mystery critter:
A nice lady named April (no last names, please!) contacted me recently, explaining that she was poking through a large pile of shells on the beach during a recent trip to Myrtle Beach, SC. From within this pile, she excavated a large, blackened, weird-looking tooth and was very interested in finding out what kind of creature it might have popped out of. Could the Museum help?
Of course we can!
So, April sent me a few photos that she took of the tooth, which I promptly sent out through the Museum staff email list for opinions (remember, I’m an entomologist by training….not many insects have big teeth like this, so I was a bit out of my depth). Although the Museum frequently receives requests for identification, some spark more curiosity than others; and this particular request was one of those that captured attention right away. In short order, I had received numerous responses, with several suggestions about what kinds of critter might have shed this chomper.
The first reply suggested “bigfoot”. I liked that one.
One of the next responses I received was from a staff member who offered that the tooth was from his brother. I liked that one even better! I observed that, based on the size of this tooth, the brother must have a big gap in his smile. The guy responded that it might be the case, but didn’t really know since his brother never smiles….
On the more ‘serious’ side, a number of Museum staff, and particularly the Museum scientists, offered the suggestion that this tooth may be from a tapir (a small group of large tropical mammals that look very pig-like, but are actually more closely related to horses and rhinos) or a peccary (a taxonomic family of New World piggy mammals…closely related to the group that most of us know generally as “pigs”). More votes came in for peccary than tapir; if this were an election, the tapir would have quickly conceded a loss.
Museum researchers from the Paleontology and Mammalogy units compared April’s tooth photos with specimens from several kinds of mammals in the Museum’s Research Collections, determining quickly that the specimen was not from a tapir. The photos did superficially resemble tooth specimens from peccaries and from manatees, however there were some features (such as the morphology of the tooth crown) that didn’t match either perfectly, and so they regarded their identification of the tooth as coming from a peccary as tentative. Without the actual specimen in hand (and often even with it in hand!), identification can be difficult.
In addition to sending April’s photos to the NC Museum staff, the pictures were also sent to a colleague at the New York State Museum (NYSM). Dr. Robert Feranec, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology at NYSM, kindly took a gander at the photos and immediately sent me his opinion that the tooth came from a manatee. Yeah, right, thought I (remember….entomologist). Manatees are huge, squishy-looking things that munch on seaweed, right? Kind of like humongous, aquatic slugs. They don’t have big teeth like this. Can’t be.
Although Robert was pretty sure that he knew what he was talking about, he wanted to be sure, and so he forwarded the pictures to a colleague of his, Dr. Brian Beatty. Now, you may not believe this, but Dr. Beatty (a Professor of Anatomy at the New York College of Osteopathic Medicine at the New York Institute of Technology) is actually an expert on the dental anatomy of aquatic mammals, including manatees. Being a member of the scientific community can sometimes be like playing a really geeky game of “Six Degrees of Separation”….how many steps am I away from a manatee paleontologist? Turns out, just a few steps away…who would’ve thought?!?!
But I digress.
Dr. Beatty responded quickly, confirming the identification of this tooth as coming from a manatee and further surmised that it was likely a Pleistocene-aged specimen (the Pleistocene is the historical time-window from about 2.5 million years ago to about 12,000 years ago, and spans the most recent period of repeated glaciations). In fact, says he, this might be one of the few known specimens documenting manatees off the southeastern coast from that time period, so the specimen might have some real scientific significance.
Not to beat a dead manatee, but this situation is yet another demonstration of the importance of taxonomists. Museums in particular, like the NC Museum of Natural Sciences and the NY State Museum, typically employ staff with such taxonomic expertise. In a very short time, April went from finding a ‘random’ tooth on a beach to having it identified as a potentially significant fossil record of Pleistocene manatee distribution; and in the process, involved scientists from three institutions who enthusiastically gave their time and attention to this request. How cool is that?
(Many thanks to the researchers at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, Dr. Feranec at the NY State Museum, and Dr. Beatty at the NY Institute of Technology for their time and assistance! April is thrilled with your help!)