Granite Geek: Will The Mastodon Become New Hampshire's Official State Fossil?

Jan 6, 2015

Granite Staters found a mastodon tooth - not a whole skeleton, like this one in Japan - but it might be enough to make the American mastodon the state's official fossil.
Credit Momotarou2012 via WikiCommons/CC - http://ow.ly/GTPHG

New Hampshire has plenty of state symbols. The state rock is – no surprise - granite; the state fish is the brook trout. Our state tree is the white birch; our state insect, the ladybug; our state gem, smoky quartz, and so on.

Unlike many other states, New Hampshire does not have a state fossil – at least not yet.

David Brooks writes the weekly Granite Geek science column for the Nashua Telegraph and GraniteGeek.org. He joined All Things Considered to talk about an effort to choose a state fossil

These days we often get state symbols through enterprising grade school students – that’s how we got the state fruit, the pumpkin. Who’s behind this state fossil bill?

Enterprising third graders, of course - actually a group at Kearsarge Regional Elementary School. Their teacher, Tom Smith, was talking to them about it. We don't have many fossils - we don't really have any fossils in New Hampshire, for all practical purposes -  because of that granite, which is an igneous rock. It's volcanic, it melts, and so it doesn't really preserve bones very well. You don't get dinosaurs here.

We do have the possibility of more recent fossils, including wooly mammoths and mastodons. That's actually what has happened in the last couple years, surprisingly. Captain Mike Anderson and his adult daughter Kelsi, who are sailing out of Rye, and in 2013 they first brought up a wooly mammoth tooth and later they brought up a mastodon tooth, which is in fabulous condition, and I guess it has the world's mastodon experts all excited. And then last year a Plymouth State professor went up and found a wooly mammoth tooth, in the Piscataqua region.

So we had three teeth from large, hairy ancestors of the elephant in our area. And that got Tom Smith, the teacher, excited, and he went to the kids and said, maybe we should do these as a state fossil. They all agreed, and they sent an application to the state, saying why don't you make the mastodon, the American mastodon, [the state fossil.]

The mastodon, rather than the wooly mammoth?

I asked about that - the wooly mammoth is the one you and I think of when we think of as hairy Ice Age elephants. It looks kind of like an elephant with a fur coat. The mastodon's got more of a slopey head and it just doesn't look as good. I asked, well, how come it was a mastodon and not a wooly mammoth? And the answer is, there are four other states that have a wooly mammoth as their fossil already, whereas there's only one other state that has a mastodon. And the kids thought we should be special, and I agree with that.

But we might have a wooly mammoth constituency in the legislature that might decide to put this issue up for a debate instead of just going with the mastodon.

Absolutely. So far it's an LSR, a proposed bill, that would make the American mastodon the official state fossil, and that will need to be debated. The way things have gone in Concord and Washington and pretty much all legislatures these days, I expect it'll turn into some vicious battle, and there will be huddled discussions in the corner about different types of members of the order Proboscidean, which is what these all are. And so I would look forward to that being finally something interesting happening in Concord.

In their letter to lawmakers, the class notes the following, and I quote, “Our surrounding states have state fossils but New Hampshire does not.” A fossil gap! 

It's an outrage, how this has been managed for so long that we have no state fossil. I'm ashamed, it's just horrible... come to think of it, I don't think we have a state subatomic particle, either. So that could be another one.

NHPR's Brady Carlson (left) and the Granite Geek, David Brooks, together in the NHPR studios.
Credit Sara Plourde, NHPR