Woolly Mammoth Jaw Bone
It’s British Science Week this month, so our object for March is this amazing Woolly Mammoth Jaw Bone. (G.15001)
This jaw bone is part of an almost complete adult woolly mammoth skeleton which was found, together with bones from several juvenile mammoths, in a spoil heap at the Condover Quarry near Shrewsbury in 1986.
The skeleton is the most complete and best-preserved woolly mammoth in Britain, and its discovery is even more important because of its surprisingly young age. Carbon dating puts this woolly mammoth in Shropshire just 12,700 years ago. Which is a time when it had previously been assumed woolly mammoths had gone extinct in western Europe.
Using a variety of techniques scientists were able to not only work out when this mammoth died but likely how and at what age.
The mammoths are thought to have died after getting stuck in a shallow, body of water filled with sediment, known as a kettle hole. Things like pollen and invertebrates were used by scientists to determine the landscape and climate in which the mammoths were living before their death. They found it was most likely a dry treeless landscape with a temperate climate not much cooler than we have today. The kettle hole was comparatively rich in vegetation, which might be why the mammoths were drawn to it. Little did they know it would mean their demise.
This jaw bone is very useful for aging the woolly mammoth because it contains teeth. Woolly mammoth had four teeth. One on each side of their jaw, top and bottom. Over their life time they would get six sets of these, increasing in size as the got older. Unlike ours, mammoth teeth are replaced from the back of the jaw. Moving forward to replace the old one. This specimen of lower jaw contains two teeth. One near the front which is worn smooth through use and one behind coming through to replace it. The plates that make up the teeth can be seen, creating a stripy pattern on the front worn tooth. Based on the size of the teeth, it is inferred that these are the second and third set of teeth for the woolly mammoth. Using the ages elephants get their different sets of teeth for reference, it was reasoned that this mammoth was likely around 28 years old.
The woolly mammoth bones were only in the ground for a dozen or so thousand years, meaning they didn’t have time to fully fossilise. As such, in order to preserve them for the future, they must be stored in an environment in which temperature and humidity are controlled. Several the woolly mammoth bones are on permanent display with us at SM&AG in a specially made display case. The rest are normally held in the store at the Museum’s secure climate-controlled Collections Centre in Ludlow. Several bones are also currently on display in the gallery space at Ludlow Library as part of the Evolving Shropshire exhibition, which is coming to a close at the end of this month.
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