The first person to see it was a bulldozer operator working the night shift, who caught a glimpse of a white dot as he lifted a huge pile of dirt and dropped it into a dump truck.
Later, after the truck unloaded, a bulldozer driver was prepared to level the land, but stopped to look closely when he, too, saw that white flash.
Only then did the miners realize they had unearthed something special: a 7-foot mammoth tusk that had been underground for thousands of years.
“We were very fortunate to find what we found,” he said. David Straleyan executive at North American Coal, which owns the coal mine.
Miners removed the tusk from an ancient river bed, about 40 feet below the surface, at the Freedom Mine near Beulah, North Dakota. The 45,000-acre surface mine produces up to 14.5 million tons of brown coal annually.
After finding the tusk, the miners stopped digging in the area and called experts, who estimated that it was between 10,000 and 100,000 years old.
Jeff Person, a paleontologist at the North Dakota Geological Survey, was one of the first to attend. He expressed surprise that the tusk had not suffered more damage, given the heavy machinery used at the site.
“It’s miraculous that it came out basically intact.”Person said.
A subsequent excavation at the site found more bones. Person described it as a “drip of finds” that included more than 20 bones, including a shoulder blade, ribs, a tooth and parts of hips, and it is probably the most complete mammoth found in the state, where it is much more common to find only a bone, tooth or fragment of a mammoth tusk.
In the past, mammoths lived in areas of Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. Specimens have been found in the United States and Canada, explained Paul Ullmann, a vertebrate paleontologist at the University of North Dakota.
The discovery at the mine is quite rare for North Dakota and the region, since many remains of animals that lived in the last ice age were destroyed by glaciations and ice sheet movements, Ullmann said.
More mammoth remains have been found in areas such as Texas and South Dakota. People have even found frozen corpses in the permafrost in Canada and Siberia.
Mammoths became extinct about 10,000 years ago in what is now North Dakota, according to the Geological Survey. They were larger than modern elephants and were covered in dense fur. There are cave paintings from up to 13,000 years ago.
That ivory tusk, which weighs more than 50 pounds, is considered fragile. Paleontologists wrapped it in plastic to try to control how quickly it dehydrates. If it happens too quickly, the bone could break and be destroyed, Person explained.
The tusk and other bones have been stored wrapped in plastic, and will remain that way for at least several months while scientists determine how to safely remove the water. Paleontologists will later determine the species of mammoth, Person said.
The mining company plans to donate the bones to the state for educational purposes.
“Our goal is to give it to the kids,” Straley said.