Mastodon bones found at Little Narrows Gypsum in Cape Breton

Julie Collins
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The discovery of rare bones has created quite a buzz at Little Narrows Gypsum and the Cape Breton community.

A quarry supervisor was checking an area that had been blasted and discovered a bone.

"It turns out it was the tibia which is the shinbone of a mastodon," explained Department of Natural Resources senior geologist John Calder. "From what they told me, Lawrence MacNeil and fellow worker Sandy MacLeod carefully took out the bone and looking around found about six other bones and some fragments."

Calder visited the quarry this week along with a curator from the Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History in Halifax. The bones have since been taken to the museum where it is expected they will eventually be on display.

"I'm so impressed with the company, these guys who are all local, they did the right thing including the plant manager," Calder said. "This is exciting, it is important. These things aren't found every day. "

Calder said there have only been a handful of  mastodon bones found in the Maritimes.

He said the two most notable are one found in Hillborough, N.B. in 1936 and one found in a gypsum mine at East Milford, N.S. in 1991. There was also a femur found in Middle River years ago and three molars were found by fishermen off Georges Bank.

"We are going to send off a piece of bone and wood for carbon 14 dating to Woods Hole Oceanographic in the (United) States," he said. "This will determine if they can   get a more accurate date, that will be really fascinating. Carbon 14 dating is a way of dating organic material that is younger than 50,000 years. "

Calder said gypsum formed when a sea evaporated across the Maritimes about 330 million years ago. Water created caves and hollows in the gypsum that had been filled in with peat and muck.

"Back in the ice age these creatures had been probably walking across a bog, stepped into a particularly deep spot, sunk down under their great weight. They were mired in these sinkholes and couldn't get out," Calder said. "If you were to write a manual on how to trap a mastodon in the ice age, this would be how to do it."

When the bones were discovered, about a week ago,  plant manager Byron MacMillan moved the operation to a different section of the quarry.

"The main big bone was in two pieces and there were several other bones about 50 feet below the surface," MacMillan said. "It is the nature of the operation for workers to be on the lookout for anything unusual, teeth often fall off loaders or dozers, so the guys are always alert."

Calder will be back at the site within a week or so to check for more bones.

The workers carefully set aside about five dump truck loads of material taken from the area where the bones were located.

"The company has offered to gradually spread the material with their machines so we can see if there is any other bone material," Calder said. "They took such care of the fossils, that's not making them any money, they are just being good citizens doing the right thing."

Fast Facts

• Mastodons are an extinct group of mammal species that inhabited North and Central America.

•They were similar in appearance to elephants

•Mastodons had cusp-shaped teeth, well-suited for chewing leaves and branches of trees and shrubs.

•Large males could grow up to 9 feet in height and weigh as much as 4.5 tonnes.

• They are generally reported as having disappeared from North America about 10,500 years ago.

Source: Wikipedia

Organizations: Department of Natural Resources, Nova Scotia Museum of Natural History, Georges Bank Wikipedia

Geographic location: Cape Breton, Little Narrows, Halifax Hillborough East Milford Middle River North America

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