Nic Coombey was walking by the side of Loch Ryan near Stranraer, southwest Scotland when he saw something that looked like a piece of enormous bone. When he posted photographs of it online many people rushed to tell him it was just driftwood, but Coombey had greater hopes, reporting the find to the National Museums of Scotland. He was right to do so because the bone has been confirmed as coming from a mammoth – the first time such a find has been made in Scotland.
Tusks and teeth have long revealed Scotland once had mammoths. Bones were missing, however, and with them the possibility of learning things other fossils cannot tell us.
Coombey works for Solway Firth Partnership, a charity to preserve the area. His discovery is a major boost for knowledge of these great beasts, and the ecosystem that supported them. Most of the study of the mighty mammoth femur is still to be done. Most excitingly, there are hopes of extracting DNA to reveal the sub-population of mammoths this one came from, possibly revealing the origins of Scotland’s mammoths. Even if this proves impossible, researchers expect that study of the stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen within the bone will reveal this mammoth’s diet.
Dr Andrew Kitchener of the National Museums of Scotland told IFLScience it is not known for certain if the bone was buried by the side of the loch where it was found, or floated there. However, it is thought it’s more likely to have eroded out of local clay.
The largest mammoths were indeed enormous, even under their fur, reaching 4 meters (13 feet) high. However, those the size of Asian elephants were more common. Kitchener said it is estimated the beast it came from was probably between 2.1-2.4 meters (7-8 feet) high at the shoulder, based on the similarity of the femur size to female Asian elephants that grow to this size. “Despite their name, mammoths were not huge,” Kitchener said, although he may have a different definition of huge from some of us.
Paleontologists have taken samples to radio-carbon date the bone, but have yet to receive the results.
“During the peak of the last Ice Age Scotland was almost completely glaciated, but there is evidence of an Ice Age fauna c. 30,000 years ago, including mammoths and woolly rhinos,” Kitchener said, but there were other eras where the lowlands were ice-free, so we don’t yet know in which period this mammoth lived.
A bone that may have come from a mammoth was reported in 1840 near Airdrie, but the specimen was lost and the identification unconfirmed.