Burke Museum scientists work to unearth mammoth tusk

On Thursday afternoon, Burke Museum began digging up the mammoth tusk that was found at the construction site of a South Lake Union apartment complex, and another local star was in the making.

Burke Museum paleontologists work to remove a tusk from a Columbian mammoth that was discovered at a construction site at South Lake Union. The digging will continue Friday and a crane at the construction site will hoist it up.

Burke Museum paleontologists work to remove a tusk from a Columbian mammoth that was discovered at a construction site at South Lake Union. The digging will continue Friday and a crane at the construction site will hoist it up. Photo by Greg Gilbert of the The Seattle Times

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The process of digging out a mammoth’s tusk is pretty basic.

The guy in charge might have a doctorate in organismal biology and anatomy, as does Christian Sidor of the Burke Museum.

But Thursday afternoon he and three colleagues were in the ground 30 feet below street level using a shovel, a spade and sometimes just their hands to move dirt. The tusk is heading to the museum.

They had uncovered about 7 feet of it at the South Lake Union apartment complex construction site where it was found Tuesday and speculate that the tusk might be 3 or 4 feet longer.

Sidor was pretty excited. He planned to work through the night, if necessary.

“The Burke has 25 mammoth fossils from King County, but most are very fragmented. There is nothing as complete as this,” he said.

His official title is vertebrate paleontology curator for the museum.

Sidor figured that by the time it was pulled up, after being encased in plaster, the tusk would weigh about 500 pounds.

He happily noted the construction site had a 137-foot crane to hoist it up.

Eventually, people will be able to view the tusk at the museum and hopefully learn about life in the Puget Sound region when it resembled an Arctic plain.

Actually, Puget Sound didn’t even exist. Just flatlands in between ice ages.

Right now, Sidor said, before carbon dating will be done, he figured the tusk was probably 22,000 years old, and maybe even 60,000 years old.

The mammoths around here, called Columbian mammoths, were big guys.

They were the size of modern-day African elephants, with an adult male weighing 15,000 to 20,000 pounds.

The mammoths were vegetarians, gobbling up 300 to 600 pounds of green eats a day, said another of the staffers at the dig, Bax Barton, a research associate in the Burke’s paleontology division.

He figured the region had three or four herds of the mammoths, with each herd consisting of 30 to 40 animals.

As the climate changed and became warmer, said Barton, forests formed and that left less food.

The property at Mercer Street and Pontius Avenue North where the apartment complex is being constructed is owned by AMLI Residential, a multibillion-dollar company with apartments around the country.

Scott Koppelman, an executive with the company in Seattle, said that “after getting a little nervous” when told about the discovery of the tusk, we “realized the benefits far outweighed the cost,” even if it meant some construction delay.

There are no state or federal laws that would have prevented AMLI from going ahead with construction and destroying the tusk.

But Koppelman said “community involvement is very important” to the company.

Sidor said he didn’t expect that more mammoth remains would be found. He said scavenger animals would have eaten most of the mammoth, but not the tusk because it had no nutritional value.

But if more of the mammoth was found, said Sidor, “Of course, we’d love to have it.”

Koppelman said, “We’ll deal with that when we cross it.”

On the east side of the construction site is the backside of a building housing the Bright Horizons Child Care, which had a small outdoor walkway.

The kids and staffers certainly hoped more of the mammoth would be found, talking about how neat that would be.

The staffers made plans to make sure to watch at 4 p.m. Friday, when the tusk is expected to be lifted up.

The kids chanted, “Dig it! Dig it up!”

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