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Tualatin goes tusk to tusk


Historical Society hosts an evening of local discoveries

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Yvonne Addington, president of the Tualatin Historical Society, stands in front of the 14,000-year-old bones of a mastodon on display at the Tualatin Library. The mastodon was found by Portland State University student John George in the early 1960s. The Heritage Center is hosting an Ice Age program, 'The Demise of an Ice Age Giant,' on Thursday, April 18.The mastodon might be Tualatin’s unofficial mascot since the unearthing of its tusk in 1962, but it is the tusk of its distant cousin, the mammoth, that will steal the spotlight today (Thursday) at the Heritage Center.

Though the two creatures are often confused, Larry Purchase of the North American Research Group explained there are distinct differences between the prehistoric pachyderms.

“The mastodon left Africa long before the mammoth did, about 28 million years ago, and came to the North American continent via the land bridge from Russia over to Alaska,” Purchase explained. “Then these mammoths came much later, probably five million years ago.”

Once they shared common ground, the smaller, more muscular mastodon — like the one displayed at the Tualatin Public Library — and the mammoth were not direct competitors, since they drew from different food sources.

Seven years ago, the tusk was found next to a dumpster at Western Oregon University in McMinnville, tossed by a paleobotanist, Purchase said.

“Of course, a paleobotanist is not interested in vertebrates,” he added.

And when his fossil club was alerted to the discarded piece of prehistory, they questioned its significance.

The club held onto the tusk, then in several pieces, before they slowly began to reconstruct it. They reinforced some of the tusk’s hollowed interior with round cork, adding the largest metal radiator hoses they could find for stability. They used Paleobond filler to smooth some of the cracks.

“The process was quite lengthy because everybody was debating about what to do,” Purchase recalled.

In one piece, the tusk measures six and a half feet – larger than the mastodon tusk currently on display at the Heritage Center.

The elaborate restoration was uncharted territory for many members of the club. When they were finished, they found they had not only an invaluable artifact, but also an excellent educational tool.

“It’s kind of a hands-on tool for kids,” he said. “It’s not pliable, which a lot of fossils are.”

Purchase will be one of three speakers at Thursday evening’s event, and he will largely focus on a comparison between the mastodon and the mammoth. Among the topics covered will be: How to tell the difference between mammoth ivory and elephant ivory.

Mammoth ivory, Purchase said, “has chevron lines in the cross-section when cut across. The younger elephants’ (ivory) has more of a cross-hatch mark on it.”

The presentation welcomes McMinnville High School students who participated in the Williamette Valley Pleistocene Project last summer, where they discovered the first mammoth footprints documented in Oregon. With retired McMinnville Police Officer Mike Full, who led the excavation, and teacher Corey Eklund, they will present a fiber glass mold of the footprints for permanent display at the Heritage Center.

“Everything we get off the site stays in the public domain,” Full said.

Full said unearthing prehistoric remains has been a passion of his since he stumbled upon his first fossil — part of a mammoth — on the banks of the Yamhill River when he was 12 years old.

The tusk comparison is part of a push to highlight Tualatin’s prominent role in a niche tourism industry: the Ice Age Trail.

A catastrophic flood that occurred approximately 15,000 years ago may prove, in retrospect, to have been a happy accident for the city of Tualatin. When an ice dam broke, about 250 cubic miles of water were expelled from Glacial Lake near what is now Missoula, Mont. Over the course of three days, the flood spread across 16,000 square miles, often at depths of more than a hundred feet. The water coursed through Idaho, Washington and as far south in Oregon as Eugene.

The floods displaced nutrient-rich soil, which proved a boon to the Willamette Valley — and its modern-day wine industry. But the waters carried with them “erratics,” non-indigenous rock formations, as well as non-native animals — many of which have been excavated in and around Tualatin.

Yvonne Addington, Heritage Center board member and a driving force behind the preservation and display of the Tualatin mastodon, admits that the concept of “ice age tourism” can be a hard sell. She laughingly recalled how consultant Bill Baker of Total Destination Marketing expressed concerns about “managing expectations” among the city, Chamber of Commerce and Historical Society when he was first approached with this idea. But Baker ultimately produced an initial draft of the Ice Age Tourism Strategy, which was presented to the city in April 2011. The strategy advised a subtle, consistent ice age branding around the city, as well as signage along main thoroughfares like I-5 and I-205. Three grants from the Washington County Visitors Association later, it is clear Tualatin is taking its role in prehistory seriously.

Addington said the process has led not only to increased community involvement, but awareness of the region’s timeless treasures as well.

“There is so much interest,” Addington said. “I’m getting a call a day about sites where we can look (for fossils) — they’re generally small, like someone has a mammoth tooth.”

Purchase said his fossil club conducts three yearly fossil tests, where the public is welcome to bring in fossils for identification.

“There’s an awful lot of fossils out there,” Purchase said, “it’s just people don’t look for them.”

"What Big Tusks You Have" will be held Thursday, April 18, at 7 p.m. at the Tualatin Heritage Center, 8700 S.W. Sweek Drive. Free, $3 donation from adults appreciated. For more information, call 503-885-1926.