Featured Fossil: Ancient Bison Tooth–or Not? Introducing the “Burn Test”

by Erin Petersen Lindberg

A weekend beach outing-October 24th, 2015

Last October, my family joined Bruce MacFadden and Sean Moran on a guided tour of a local Santa Cruz beach. As we toured the beach, I collected a few shells to add to our collection at home.

A tooth, not a shell!

The next day, while rinsing the shells, one in particular took on a familiar shape, it was a tooth, not a shell! A week or so prior, I might not have recognized this as a tooth, but I had been implementing a fossil horse tooth lesson in my 6th grade class with PhD student Sean Moran from the University of Florida, and as a result had some familiarity with teeth.

First day back to class after the tooth discovery

I immediately showed Sean my find. Sean said he thought that this was an ungulate of some sort and he snapped some photos to send to Bruce MacFadden, a paleontologist at the University of Florida. Bruce quickly replied, with a hopeful, “ perhaps this is an extinct bison tooth?” and please keep it in a safe place until we meet again. Bruce’s colleague Richard Hulbert thought that we had to be careful in our excitement, a test was needed.

What is this tooth found among the shells?
What is this tooth found among the shells?

The desk drawer

My mother’s classroom desk, which now belongs to me, seemed the safest place to keep the tooth. Over the course of the next few months the tooth came out of hiding as I marveled at the possibilities of it being a bison tooth! Students loved to hold it, and wonder as well!!!

Florida calls- June 2016

The day before I was scheduled to head out to Florida to participate in a paleontological dig, Dr.MacFadden sent a text, “ do not forget the tooth”, to which I replied, “ already packed!”

The burn test. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage.
The burn test. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage.

The Burn Test

Little did I know how excited Bruce and colleagues were about this test!

Our wrap-up meeting for the dig included the Burn Test.

Our group moved outside and circled around Victor Perez , another PhD student at UF, to learn how to test to see if the tooth was fossilized, or not.

The Burn

My heart was pounding.

You could feel the excitement in the group. Bruce stood next to me as I fired the tooth, then smelled it….no smell. I think he was hopeful that this was Bison, so was I!

Bruce testing the smell. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage.
Bruce testing the smell. Photo courtesy of Jeff Gage.

Test 2

I burned the tooth a bit longer this  time. The tooth scorched and and smelled of burnt hair. If it had been mineralized there would not have been any scorching or smell of organics and thus would have been a fossil. Bruce leaned in and said he was sorry, and I said that it was not a problem. Richard Hulbert said that the tooth was conceivably Mission Era, so 100’s of years old.

What is it’s antiquity?

Bruce said that if I really wanted to know how old the tooth was, that I could have it radiocarbon dated, for about $750-$1000; this would go back about 50,000 years or so.

Erin performing the burn test
Erin performing the burn test

A scientific process

Was it the tooth of a cow or a fossilized tooth of an extinct bison, that was the question.

The initial discovery that my shell was indeed a tooth was exciting. What is this?? This inquiry led to asking for expert opinions, as well as showing the tooth to students and colleagues so they could ponder the questions as well. The burn test was great, because it is something I can show and do with my students. What a fantastic journey, bison or cow, it did not really matter. The process was an exciting learning opportunity about science.