You are viewing this article in the archives. For the latest breaking news and updates in Ann Arbor and the surrounding area, see
Posted on Mon, Aug 24, 2009 : 12:10 p.m.

University of Michigan paleontologist ponders dig after mammoth tooth found at golf course in mid-west Michigan

By Juliana Keeping

A Saranac, Mich. golf course worker doing some routine weed whacking got a shock last week when he spotted part of a mammoth tooth jutting out from the ground.

Now, a University of Michigan paleontologist is considering doing a small dig on the golf course where the tusk was found.


Unusual find: Dixie Riley, co-owner of Morrison Lake Country Club, holds the mammoth tooth found on the Saranac-area golf course.
Dave Raczkowski | The Grand Rapids Press

"We've found lots of lost golf balls before, but not mammoth teeth," said Dixie Riley, who co-owns the 110-acre Morrison Lake Country Club in Ionia County with her husband, PGA golf professional Charley Riley.

Dixie Riley said it was a routine Tuesday in the club house when a worker who had been weed whacking along a bank came in and announced he'd found a mammoth tusk. The Rileys were dismissive at first--until they took a look at the worker's find. They first called a Portland, Mich. family who had found mastodon remains on their property earlier this summer while digging a pond. From there, the Rileys called Scott Beld, a U-M researcher with the Museum of Paleontology.

He drove from Ann Arbor that day to take a look at the tusk and confirmed it's that of a mammoth.

Beld said today that his boss, Dan Fischer, a U-M professor and the curator of paleontology for the Museum of Paleontology, is digging for woolly mammoth remains in Siberia. When he gets back Sept. 3, Fischer might organize a dig at the course, if the owners are agreeable.

"They're not terribly rare," Beld said of mammoth finds in the state. "In Michigan, we find more mastodon remains than mammoth remains. The last call we got on a mammoth was three to five years ago. Typically, in a summer, we'll get between one to three calls about mastodon."

What's the difference between a mastodon and a mammoth? While both were elephant-like, mastodons were short and stocky and ate shrubs and leaves off of trees. When they roamed the earth, mammoths more closely resembled modern elephants, and ate more grasses, scientists have theorized. There are different species of mammoths. For instance, the woolly mammoth is a different species, with remains more likely to be found in arctic northern areas, like Siberia, Beld said.

Regardless of species, mammoth tusks tell a detailed history of the ancient animal; they're an important part of Fischer's research.

"One of the things we try to do with Dan's (Fischer's) research is to paint a whole life history of the animal," Beld said.

Mammoth tusks show annual growth increments, with bands representing years. Finer increments reveal weekly and even daily growth. How much you can garnish from a tusk depends on how well it has been preserved.

The Saranac find is poorly preserved, Beld said. "The bones have been exposed for a while."

Mammoths last roamed Michigan between 10,000 and 15,000 years ago, Beld said, near the end of the Pleistocene epoch (geological timescale).

Juliana Keeping covers the University of Michigan for Reach her at 734-623-2528 or