Ranger makes mammoth discovery

Posted 8/2/23

A mammoth tooth and a bone believed to be a spinal vertebra fragment from a mammoth or mastodon are now in the protective custody of Washington State Parks thanks to coincidences involving Fort …

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Ranger makes mammoth discovery


A mammoth tooth and a bone believed to be a spinal vertebra fragment from a mammoth or mastodon are now in the protective custody of Washington State Parks thanks to coincidences involving Fort Worden Ranger Kelsey Lang.

While out walking North Beach in March, Lang, who had just celebrated her one-year anniversary as an interpretive specialist at the fort, bumped into a woman walking a yellow Labrador.

“I’m still getting to know the parks and the local people and just happened to be out on a walk one morning and I was talking to this woman who had a super cute dog,” Lang recalled. “We’ve got a Bark Ranger program, so I pulled out the Bark Ranger bandana and presented it to her and we just got on this nice chat about Fort Worden.”

The two talked about local geology and the woman asked Lang if she had heard about a recent discovery made at North Beach: A couple she was friends with from PT had found a large mammal bone.

Lang hadn’t heard of the discovery, and the couple had not contacted the parks service.

Lang gave the woman her business card and asked for her help in connecting with the couple.

“One thing led to another and the people that found the bone were very gracious and got in contact with me immediately and brought the bone over to us so that we could work on preserving it,” she said.

During the month that the unidentified bone was in the pair’s possession, they consulted with the local geological society and professionals at the Seattle-based Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. They stored the bone in saltwater during that time, which kept it from drying out and crumbling.

“The woman that I ran into with the dog on the trail, she is a paleontologist, so she knows a thing or two about preserving bones that have been taken out of the ground,” Lang said. “She actually advised the couple to keep it in saltwater.”

Through a relay of park staff, the bone was delivered to curator for collections Alicia Woods. Woods is currently working to slowly dry and preserve the bone and identify the species. Mammoths and mastodons were similar, but their vertebrae were different in terms of size and thickness, Lang explained.

She stated that the bone is in “remarkably good condition.”

During Lang’s chance encounter with the woman and her dog, the woman had also mentioned that a mammoth tooth had been discovered at North Beach several years earlier, but she did not know its current whereabouts. Lang made inquiries and found that although some of her colleagues vaguely remembered the discovery, no one knew what had become of the artifact.

As it happened, she was about to find out.

“I had recently made contact with the Port Townsend Marine Science Center to do a joint program during spring break,” Lang said. “And as we were discussing ideas for programs, they said, ‘Oh, we’ve got all these fossils that we’ll bring out and maybe one of the days we’ll do a fossil-themed exhibit.’”

The ranger asked if they happened to have a mammoth tooth.

“They were like, ‘As a matter of fact, we do,’” she recounted. “I had them check their records and, sure enough, it was the one that was found on Fort Worden’s beach in 2019. And so, they handed that over to us, seeing that it belongs to the state. They were happy to give it to us. Once again, we could take steps to properly preserve it,” Lang said.

Lang realizes that oftentimes people who find or come into possession of such artifacts are well-intentioned but unaware of proper protocol for handling them.

“We want people to, first and foremost, contact park staff,” she said. “Come to the park office and talk to the rangers. We have our own historic preservation people at headquarters, and archaeologists. So, once we hear a report of something like this, we contact them to take pictures, get GPS locations, and then we handle the removal from there.”