Boy, 6, makes rare discovery at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve

By: Mary Beth Almond | Rochester Post | Published October 14, 2021

 Julian Gagnon, 6, discovered the tooth of a 12,000-year-old mastodon in the creek at  Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve Sept. 6.

Julian Gagnon, 6, discovered the tooth of a 12,000-year-old mastodon in the creek at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve Sept. 6.

Photo provided by Mary Gagnon

 Julian Gagnon, 6, helps a staff member from the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology search the creek for more mastodon remains at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve.

Julian Gagnon, 6, helps a staff member from the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology search the creek for more mastodon remains at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve.

Photo provided by Mary Gagnon

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ROCHESTER — Like many 6-year-olds, Julian Gagnon loves to hunt for treasure as he explores the great outdoors with his family.

When he returns to his home in Grosse Pointe Woods — pockets filled with oddly shaped shaped sticks, colorful stones and pinecones of all shapes and sizes — he carefully delivers them to his “exploration station” for further examination.

Gagnon’s most recent discovery, however, secured a spot at the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology.

Mary Gagnon, Julian’s mother, said the family was hiking at Dinosaur Hill Nature Preserve in Rochester Hills Sept. 6 when the 6-year-old and his younger brother asked if they could wade in the Paint Creek.

When she obliged, Julian happily jumped in the water barefoot, telling his parents he was looking for a “dragon’s tooth.”

But he pulled out something no one expected — an actual tooth, that of a 12,000-year-old mastodon.

“I was walking around in the river, and I found a bright spot in the river and I grabbed it out of the river and I said, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ And I liked the tooth,” Julian said of his discovery.

“He happened to step on something, because he was barefoot, and he reached down and plucked this tooth out. It was weird-looking and about the size of an adult hand, so it was on the larger side,” Mary Gagnon added.

At first, Julian’s parents encouraged him to toss what they thought was just a large, strange rock back into the water so they wouldn’t have to cart it home in their already full backpacks. But when Julian insisted on keeping his “dragon’s tooth,” offering to carry it back to the truck himself, his parents let him keep it.

“That night, after we put the kids to bed, we were looking at the rock a little bit closer and I was telling my husband, ‘This is a really weird rock. It almost does look like a tooth,’” Mary Gagnon said.

Desperate for more information, she posted a photo of the find on Facebook, and a friend encouraged her to join a Michigan fossil and rock interest group online. After she posted a photo of the discovery in the group, a member said it looked like a mastodon tooth, so the couple turned to Google for some comparison photos.

As they were researching online, the couple learned that mastodon remains have been found in Rochester Hills before.

In 2006, construction workers conducting excavations in the former peat bog along Adams Road discovered a partial skeleton of a mastodon — including a partial tusk, several limb bones, a tooth, portions of the shoulder blade, skull fragments and many ribs and vertebrae. The site where the skeleton was unearthed was marked with an interpretive sign, and the remains were moved to the Cranbrook Institute of Science for study and analysis. This year, the skeleton was transferred to the Rochester Hills Museum at Van Hoosen Farm, where it is now permanently on display.

An even earlier mastodon discovery was made in June 1947 in a peat bog on Auburn Road near Dequindre Road, which yielded a few long bones and teeth.

Having a bit more confidence the material could actually be part of a mastodon, the family contacted the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology, which identified the discovery as the upper right molar of a juvenile mastodon.

“I was shocked,” Mary Gagnon said. “I didn’t believe it for quite some time.”

Adam Rountrey, the paleontology museum’s research museum collection manager, said the discovery prompted researchers to search the creek for more mastodon remains, but they came up empty. He said discovering mastodon material is quite rare in Michigan, with only about 300 mastodon finds reported in the state’s well documented history of finds.

“Given that they are fairly rare, each one is important for the study of the animal,” he explained. “Even though it’s just a single tooth, it’s another data point. It’s another location where an animal was. If it gets radiocarbon dated, it’s another date that gives us a sense of when mastodons were living in Michigan. It’s also nice that it is a tooth, because there are a lot of additional kinds of studies that can be done with teeth. The chemical composition of the tooth can be studied to understand a little bit about what the animal was eating and the climate at the time. There are also some growth increments, sort of like tree rings, that are in the tooth that can be studied to see how the animal was growing. It’s really an information-packed piece of mastodon.”

Upon learning of its significance, the family also notified Dinosaur Hill, and both entities agreed to donate the tooth to the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology for further study.

Rountrey said the museum’s first steps will be related to preserving the tooth.

“One of the first things we do is get it into a controlled environment where we have it dry very slowly to prevent cracking that sometimes happens if they dry too quickly. The next step will probably be to make a custom fit cradle, sort of like a box that is made just to fit the tooth to keep it from moving around and to give it some padding and protection during normal transport and handling. Then, it will go into our facility with controlled temperature and humidity,” he explained.

The tooth will then get a catalog number, a unique identifier, so it can be tracked into the future.

“In terms of next steps, it’s not clear yet what research steps will be taken on it. It could be radiocarbon dated, but we have not planned out a research agenda on it at this point. We also don’t have a plan to put it on display at this time, although it might be an interesting one for a rotating display just to show what being observant in a streambed in Michigan can lead to. It’s kind of a neat story,” Rountrey said.

Sue Neal, the executive director of Dinosaur Hill, said the family did the right thing by reaching out to both Dinosaur Hill and to U-M to let them know about their find.

“It’s super unusual (to find something like this on the property). I’ve been with Dinosaur Hill now for over 20 years, and this is my first and only knowledge of something like that being found on our property. It’s very exciting,” Neal said. “We certainly would worry if somebody found something like that and kept it to themselves and didn’t share that really exciting find so everybody could learn from it.”

As a reward for his discovery, Julian will receive a life-size 3D replica of the tooth from the museum, which his mom said will be proudly displayed on a shelf in his room.

“I foresee Julian definitely pressuring me into bringing all kinds of stuff that I don’t want to bring home in the future,” Mary Gagnon said with a chuckle.

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