ATHENS, Greece – Researchers in northern Greece have uncovered two massive tusks of a mastodon that roamed Europe more than 2 million years ago — tusks that could be the largest of their kind ever found.
The remains of the mastodon, which was similar to the woolly mammoth but had straighter tusks as well as different teeth and eating habits, were found in an area about 250 miles north of Athens where excavations have uncovered several prehistoric animals over the past decade.
One of the tusks measured 16 feet, 4 inches long and the other was more than 15 feet long, the research team said.
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They were found with the animal's upper and lower jaws — still bearing teeth — and leg bones, said Evangelia Tsoukala, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Thessaloniki, who led the team that excavated the site.
"To find a tusk 5 meters [more than 16 feet] long, that was a big surprise," Tsoukala told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from the site late Wednesday.
"It's a very significant find because with these sections of the skeleton we can draw conclusions about this animal and its development," she added. "We are also looking for clues about its extinction."
Mastodons, distantly related to elephants, roamed Europe, Asia and North America, but how they became extinct remains a mystery.
They are thought to have disappeared in Europe and Asia some 2 million years ago, but survived in North America until 10,000 years ago.
Tsoukala said the male animal discovered in Greece lived about 2.5 million years ago.
"This animal was in its prime. It was 25 to 30 years old; they lived until about 55. It was about 3.5 meters (11 1/2 feet) tall at the shoulder, and weighed around six tons," Tsoukala said.
Dutch researcher Dick Mol, who assisted with the excavation, said plant material found near the tusks would be analyzed to try to determine the environment the animal lived in.
He said the skeleton could also provide information.
"It's really a gold mine," said Mol, a research associate at the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam. "These are the best preserved skeletons in the world of this species."
Dave Martill, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth in England, said scientists can analyze the growth rings in the tusks to learn more about the world's climate at the time the mastodon lived.
"These animals, in their bones, hold a whole load of information about the environment at the time — not just the animal," said Martill, an independent expert not connected with the excavation.
The bones will also be scoured for the remote chance of finding DNA material.
Researchers from Germany and the United States recently analyzed genetic material from an American mastodon recovered from fossils up to 130,000 years old found in Alaska, providing clearer insight into the evolution of elephants and their relatives.
If DNA is recovered from the animal found in Greece — which Mol acknowledges is "very doubtful" — it could allow researchers to compare it to other European and American mastodon fossils at an unprecedented level of detail.
The tusks were discovered in October by an excavation machine operator working at a sand quarry, but it took months for the scientific investigation to be organized.
Tsoukala, who has been conducting excavations in the region since 1990, found a mastodon tusk measuring more than 14 feet long in the same area 10 years ago. She said the latest discovery is more significant because the skeletal remains are more complete.