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Originally published February 14, 2014 at 9:20 PM | Page modified February 26, 2014 at 12:02 PM

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Tusk safely in museum, time to name Seattle’s mammoth

On Friday afternoon, the mammoth tusk found in the South Lake Union neighborhood was lifted and trucked to the Burke Museum.


Seattle Times staff reporter

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Now, for the next order of business.

What to name the mammoth whose 8½-foot tusk was found at that South Lake Union construction site?

Friday afternoon, the tusk was hoisted by crane, placed on a Handy Andy flatbed rental truck and taken to the Burke Museum.

It is in fragile condition, so the previous night, museum paleontologists had encased it in more than 100 pounds of plaster.

The tusk had been sitting for thousands of years in sediment through which groundwater flowed, said Christian Sidor, the Burke’s vertebrate paleontology curator.

“It almost felt like a crayon,” he said about the tusk. “It was so soft you could take a nail and scratch it.”

Sidor said the tusk will be stored in its plaster casing for a year, maybe even two, so it can dry naturally.

It is the largest, most complete mammoth tusk found to date in Seattle, and the news since it was found Tuesday during excavation for a new apartment complex had not only transfixed local residents but made national news.

The tusk is believed to be 22,000 to 60,000 years old. Carbon dating will provide a more accurate figure.

“She’s going to be a girl,” predicted Julie Stein, the museum’s executive director, about whether the tusk came from a male or female mammoth.

Stein knows it would be problematic and expensive to extract enough material from the tusk to run a DNA analysis, with no guarantee of success.

But we like to personalize such big things.

We even named a giant tunnel drill Bertha.

This tusk came from a mammoth the size of modern-day African elephants, which weigh in at 15,000 to 20,000 pounds.

South Lake Union Annie? Big Girl? Big Boy?

“We’ll have to do a campaign on what to name the mammoth,” said Stein, quite aware of the great publicity the tusk has generated.

Ageless lesson

The kids at Bright Horizons Child Care, which is on the east side of the construction site at Mercer Street and Pontius Avenue North, had a name for the mammoth. They could watch the goings-on from an outdoor walkway at the back of their building.

“Woolly U Be My Valentine,” said a sign they had painted.

The problem with that name is that it refers to a woolly mammoth. Although some news accounts said the tusk came from a woolly mammoth, Burke paleontologists say there were no woolly mammoths west of the Rockies.

What we had here were Columbian mammoths.

Of course, with its notoriety, we might also like to assign the South Lake Union mammoth a personality, just like we’ve done with Smokey Bear.

Maybe like that of the modern African elephant?

“They’re known to be mean and ill-tempered,” said Bax Barton, a research associate in the Burke’s paleontology division. You may have read the stories about them attacking tourists.

The modern day Asian elephant?

“They’re known to be mild-tempered,” Barton said.

Decisions, decisions.

Prep work

The work preparing the tusk for lifting went fairly smoothly.

On Thursday, using shovels, trowels and brushes, Burke staffers dug out the earth around the tusk so that eventually it was sitting on four dirt pedestals.

Using 2-by-4s for extra support, the tusk was wrapped in paper and aluminum foil, then a plaster-soaked burlap placed on two-thirds of it.

The staffers ran out of plaster, and Stein drove to the Home Depot store on Utah Avenue South.

A woman employee told Stein the store was closed for the night, and Stein said she was ready to leave.

Stein said her husband, retired UW geology Professor Stan Chernicoff — “a New York guy” — then said, “Come on, let’s ask if she’ll open it up.”

They did.

The managers inside had heard about the tusk discovery, and donated four 25-pound bags of plaster, said Stein.

So the legend of the tusk keeps growing.

On Friday afternoon, some 75 people stopped by to oooh and ahhh, and take photos as construction workers hoisted the tusk out of the dirt.

One of them was Tiffany Silver, a project coordinator at a nearby business.

“This is so cool! Right in the middle of the city!” she said.

Yep.

Erik Lacitis: 206-464-2237 or elacitis@seattletimes.com Twitter @ErikLacitis



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