Vernon Kessi was digging a sewer line for a new apartment complex last December when he saw something strange from the cab of his excavator: A deposit of white, crumbly material that he could tell wasn’t rock.
“It’s almost like it was petrified wood,” said Kessi, a heavy equipment operator for W.W. Construction of Newport. “But when you looked in the middle you could see bone marrow.”
What Kessi and his power shovel unearthed that morning turned out to be the jaw of a mastodon, an extinct elephant-like creature that roamed North America until the end of the last Ice Age.
Recognizing the potential importance of the find, Kessi and his coworkers stopped digging and called Willamette Neighborhood Housing Services, the agency that’s developing the Seavey Meadows housing complex off Northeast Conser Avenue.
“I was really impressed that the construction crew noticed this and called us right away,” said Jim Moorefield, the agency’s executive director. “It just would have been easy to miss.”
After confirming that the remains were those of a prehistoric creature, the trench was filled in to preserve the bones and covered over to conceal its location from fossil hunters.
Construction is proceeding on the rest of the project with the approval of the state archaeologist, who checked the site to make sure there were no human remains present.
Moorefield is in discussions with Loren Davis, a paleoarchaeologist at Oregon State University, about conducting a full-blown excavation after the rainy season ends.
The discovery earned Kessi the nickname of “Vernosaurus” around the construction site and has created a buzz among paleontologists, who hope to add to their store of knowledge about life in the Pleistocene Era.
American mastodons first appeared in the fossil record around 3.7 million years ago and died out around 10,000 B.C., about 2,500 years after the earliest known humans arrived in North America. They were a prominent feature of a long-vanished megafauna that also included giant ground sloths, saber-toothed cats, dire wolves and short-faced bears.
About the same size as a woolly mammoth, the mastodon had a thicker, flatter skull and a stockier frame. It had a shaggy coat, 16-foot tusks and distinctive molars with cone-shaped projections (the name means “nipple tooth”). The mastodon was a browser that fed on leaves, rather than grazing like the mammoth.
It is well-documented that mastodons once occupied what is now Oregon, but many of the remains that have been recovered are fragmentary and disjointed.
“We have a good record of them, we have a lot of bones, but sadly we know very little about their sites,” said University of Oregon geology professor Greg Retallack, who has consulted on the Seavey Meadows mastodon. “That’s what makes this Corvallis site so valuable.”
While the jaw was detached from the skull, it appears to be relatively intact, which gives Retallack hope that the fragments were found near the site where the animal died. If that’s the case, examination of the surrounding soil could give scientists valuable information about the environment in which the mastodon lived.
No attempt has yet been made to estimate the animal’s age using radiocarbon dating, but based on the depth at which the jaw was found, Retallack said it might have died anywhere from 12,000 to 30,000 years ago.
That means it’s possible that the giant creature inhabited the Willamette Valley at the same time as early humans, whose presence has been documented at Paisley Cave in Southern Oregon as far back as 12,300 B.C. While humans are known to have hunted mammoths, no confirmed mastodon kills have been found.
For now, the Corvallis mastodon remains that have been excavated so far rest in a cardboard box in Moorefield’s office — a few dozen fragments of bone and tooth, some as small as a marble and some as big as a man’s fist.
Holding the pieces in his hand gives him a quiet thrill, a feeling of connection to a bygone age.
“The thing that strikes me is just that the world is such a bigger place than humans sometimes make it out to be, that there were these beings before we were here,” he said.
“And it’s kind of exciting to find signs of that. It puts human existence into perspective.”
Contact Bennett Hall at 541-758-9529 or firstname.lastname@example.org.