A fossilised tusk of a straight-tusked elephant from the North Sea. New in the Museum!



The tusks of the contemporary African bush elephant (background) are small feat next to the fossil tusk of the straight-tusked elephant (foreground). (Image : RBINS/T. Hubin)
A fossilised tusk of a straight-tusked elephant from the North Sea. New in the Museum!
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Kelle Moreau

Early July 2020, a Dutch shrimp trawler in Belgian territorial waters hauled up nothing less than an elephant tusk in its nets. The 60 kg, 2.37 m long fossil does not belong to a mammoth, as is often the case in our regions, but appears to have come from a Palaeoloxodon antiquus. This is a type of forest elephant that inhabited the area in between ice ages. It is the first time that such an intact specimen has been found here. The tip and part of the base of the tooth are missing. A reconstruction shows that the entire tusk was more than 2.8 m long. Palaeoloxodon antiquus was a giant that was bigger than the elephants that roam the Earth today! The tusk belongs to an adult male individual about 3.5 metres tall. The age of the fossil is estimated between 130,000 and 115,000 years.

Thanks to the joint efforts of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Justice and the North Sea, Vincent Van Quickenborne, and State Secretary for Recovery and Strategic Investments in charge of Science Policy, Thomas Dermine, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences was able to add the tusk to its collections. From Tuesday 8 February 2022, the general public can admire the tusk at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels.

Who was the Straight-tusked Elephant?

Palaeoloxodon antiquus is a forest elephant that disappeared from our regions before the mammoth. The species was widespread in Europe and thrived mainly during the warmer periods between two ice ages (the interglacials). This discovery is remarkable because there was little evidence of its former presence in Belgium. Palaeoloxodon antiquus was long considered the ancestor of the Asian elephant (Elephas maximus) but is now considered a close relative of the current African forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis). Palaeoloxodon antiquus probably originated on the African continent, but it is still little known how widespread this species was in prehistoric times.

Based on the geology of the site, its precise location and the finds of other mammal remains, it is estimated that the tusk dates from the last interglacial period of the Eemian, a period in the Late Pleistocene (approximately 130,000 to 115,000 years ago).

A Trench Full of Fossils

The tusk was fished in "Het Scheur", a channel in the Belgian part of the North Sea off the coast of Zeebrugge. Dredging is regularly carried out there to enable large ships to enter the Scheldt or Eurogeul. This causes erosion of the banks of the trench. Many mammal fossils have come to the surface in this way. These include the remains of the southernmost Pleistocene walrus colony in the world, the bones of ancient whales that swam here tens of millions of years ago, and the remains of mammoths.

The region where the tus kwas found has changed dramatically in appearance throughout history. It has alternated between sea and land, was covered by an icecap during ice ages, and was a tidal landscape with forests in between the ice ages. This explains why many fossils of very different organisms are found here. However, a tusk of a straight-tusked elephant tooth was never among them.

The fact that this tusk has remained intact is thanks to the fishing method. When fishing for shrimp, no chains are used and the bottom of the net rolls freely on and over the bottom thanks to rubber "wheels". The shrimp roll in while the net remains free of stones and other unwanted bycatch. Fossils are very rarely caught with this type of net.

A Detour to the Museum of Natural Sciences

The Dutch fishermen sold the tusk to North Sea Fossils, a private fossil dealer in Urk, the Netherlands. Afterwards, it was initially studied by researchers associated with the Rotterdam Museum of Natural History.

Thanks to the joint efforts of the Minister for the North Sea, Vincent Van Quickenborne, and the State Secretary in charge of Science Policy, Thomas Dermine, negotiations were started to recover the Belgian fossil. Finally, the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences was able to include the tusk in its collections, where it will remain available for research and is also made accessible to the public. From Tuesday 8 February 2022, the general public will be able to admire the tusk at the Museum of Natural Sciences in Brussels. The signing of the declaration of donation took place on 7 February 2022, on the occasion of the inauguration of the fossil tusk.

A New Cooperation Agreement

The discovery of the fossil tusk was also the occasion for drawing up a cooperation protocol within the framework of the law on the implementation of the UNESCO Convention of 2 November 2001 on the protection of underwater cultural heritage and the protection of valuable shipwrecks. In this agreement, the Governor of West Flanders, the Directorate General of Maritime Affairs (FPS Mobility and Transport), the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, the Flemish Heritage Agency and the Flanders Marine Institute henceforth formalise the cooperation regarding the protection of the underwater cultural heritage, including the paleontological heritage, and the protection of valuable shipwrecks. The agreement ensures that future discoveries at sea will also be recorded, studied and, where necessary, made accessible to the public.

Minister Van Quickenborne: “Our North Sea reveals its treasures only sparsely. Yet the objects we find there are an important part of our heritage. Since last year, we have a new law that automatically protects heritage older than 100 years. More than 55 historic shipwrecks have already been recognised. Thanks to this law, we can now also include fossils in our heritage. The signing of the cooperation agreement is the final piece of this new law. In this way, the tusk of the straight-tusked elephant will not disappear into a private archive. Instead we can let everyone enjoy the richness of our North Sea heritage. At the same time, the scientists connected to the RBINS can research it and thus refine their knowledge of the prehistory in our regions.”

Secretary of State Dermine: “The fossilised tusk of a straight-tusked elephant, which was found off the coast of Zeebrugge, has, after a short wander, found its way to where it belongs. The RBINS is Belgium's most important research centre for palaeontology and is renowned worldwide. The fossil, which is more than 115 000 years old, is being studied at the RBINS and is linked to other treasures in the huge collection of no less than 3 million fossils. This way, it forms a piece of the puzzle in the picture of life in our regions in ancient times, which is brought to life in the Museum of Natural Sciences. From 8 February onwards, the tusk can be admired by the 350,000 visitors who come to the Museum every year.”

General Director a.i. RBINS Patricia Supply: “Earth sciences, including palaeontology but also geology and archaeology, have always been an important field of research at the RBINS. It has allowed us to build up a reputable level of palaeontological knowledge and expertise. The acquisition and exhibition of the tusk of a forest elephant is closely linked to the objectives of the RBINS: in addition to scientific research and services, the management and development of heritage and scientific collections, and the dissemination of knowledge in the natural sciences are also core tasks of the institute. Today, the tusk is given a very prominent place in our museum, near the mammoth of Lier and the African elephant that once lived in the Brussels zoo.”

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