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Taking a bite out of the past

LAMOILLE — It all happened about 13,000 years ago, give or take a few hundred years.

An animal was grazing on some shrubs in the grasslands near LaMoille — an animal nothing like the cattle that might be seen there today.

No, this animal looked more like an elephant as it roamed the prairie, standing 8 to 10 feet tall at the shoulder and weighing between four and six tons. It was a full-grown mature female mastodon, possibly in the prime of her life, and she died.

She dropped to the land she had roamed and was eventually buried beneath the soil she had trod.

And the years passed.

And then it was July 2009.

“We have a family farm up near LaMoille, and my grandson was up there looking at a bridge,” said Jerry Carver of Princeton.

Carver’s grandson, Jonathon Lauf, was studying engineering at Bradley University, and he was looking at a bridge that was damaged by flood waters two years earlier.

While standing at the base of the bridge, Lauf noticed something sticking up out of a sandbar, so he dug it up.

“He called me up, and he said, ‘Grandpa, Grandpa, I think I found a dinosaur tooth!’” Carver said. “I said, ‘Well, bring it down here then, and we’ll take a look at it.’”

What Lauf had found was a giant tooth that was almost a foot in length.

When Carver saw the tooth, he said it looked like it belonged to a woolly mammoth.

“So I put woolly mammoth on the computer and pulled it up,” he said, shaking his head. “It wasn’t a woolly mammoth at all.”

Carver’s wife Dorothy then suggested it was a mastodon tooth.

“I put up a mastodon, and boom, it was right there,” Carver said. “It’s just exactly what it looks like.”

Carver was amazed, especially at the condition and size of the tooth.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “Five pounds. I took it up to the post office and had it weighed.”

They wanted definite confirmation, so the Carvers and Jonathon’s mother, Shelly Corban, took the tooth to Springfield to the Illinois Research and Collection Center.

It was definitely a mastodon tooth, third upper molar.

“Dr. (Chris) Widja identified it, and then he conferred with Dr. (Jeff) Saunders, and Dr. Saunders is the man in the United States if you want to know about mastodons,” Carver said.

The tooth is extremely well-preserved, unlike many teeth which are found in gravel pits and have been extensively chipped and broken. After measuring the tooth, the scientists were able to give Carver some idea of the animal it came from.

Carver said many mastodons and woolly mammoths once roamed the Bureau County area,
and teeth have been found by Walnut, Buda and Wyanet.

The scientists also offered some really exciting news.

“They also feel there’s a remote possibility that within a couple hundred yards, the entire skeleton is there,” Carver said. “The experts said they would come up and search if we wanted them to, but we thought we’d try it first. It’s always more exciting when you find something yourself.”

There’s possibly more information to be gained from the tooth. The family didn’t clean it off, and keeps the tooth in a bag with the dirt that was once attached.

“This piece here came out of in here, and they feel that that’s actually a piece of its jawbone,” Carver said, pointing to a chunk. “They feel they could actually pull some DNA off of that perhaps and do a little more research when Jonathon’s ready to give it up.”

As exciting as the discovery has been, Carver said it hasn’t changed Lauf’s decision about a career.

“He has interest in old things and appreciates them, but as to being a paleontologist and out looking for something, no,” Carver said. “He just happened to see this sticking out of the ground.”

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