Once upon a time, when the Cape was a bump of rock off North America and a string of islands of glacial till waiting to be connected by sand thrown up by the sea, wooly mammoths lived out this way.
Mammoths lived out a lot of ways, way back when. They were a hardy, prolific, and well-travelled species, until whatever killed them off killed them off. Combination of climate change, disease, and human beings who were very handy with sticks with sharp points, scientists figure. Mammoths lived on every continent except South America and Antactica (although who knows what bones are below the ice cap) but until today I'd never thought of them as living here when there wasn't much of a here here then. But they did.
The tooth of one of them was thrown up when the Cape Cod Canal was being dug 90-odd years ago and that tooth now sits in the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster where I took its picture today and where a guide told me it's very much like an elephant's tooth and elephant's teeth, I learned, are interesting.
Elephants have 24 permanent teeth, but only two on each side are at work at any period in an elephants life. As those teeth wear down they are pushed forward in the jaws until they fall out. The teeth behind roll forward to replace them, and when they wear down, they fall out. This goes on throughout the elephant's lifetime until its last teeth are gone, somewhere around the age of 65 and then, the guide told me, without its choppers the elephant can't eat and it starves to death.
Same thing probably happened to mammoths.
The guide was a tall, trim man, in his 60s, with a white mustache that turned up at the ends. His two rings were turquoise and there were turquoise insets in the big silver band of his wristwatch. When he saw me studying the mammoth tooth, looking for the best angle to take its photograph from, he asked me if I was a dentist. He was very excited when, being a reflexive sort of wiseguy, I said I was indeed a dentist and I thought I'd found a cavity, and he was disappointed when, being also no George Costanza and not prepared to fake my way through a pretend career on the spot, I quickly told him I was kidding. I guess he goes into the museum every day hoping to talk about that tooth with a real dentist. If you happen to be one and are in these parts and have time on your hands maybe you could stop in and make his day.
Nice guy. He could have held my being a wiseguy against me and walked off and I'd have had no post tonight. But he stuck around and taught me about an elephant's dentition and gave me some words to wrap around my pictures.
Mammoths disappeared from the Cape and everywhere about 4000 years ago. Other species vanished from the Cape more recently.
The great auk was hunted to extinction, someone bagging the last one in 1844. And the heath hen was wiped out in 1932, the last one dying on Martha's Vineyard in 1932, despite the fact that as early as 1790 people were trying to protect and conserve it. One of the first animals Americans tried to save.
Codfish are in trouble now.
But striped bass are making a comeback, along with piping plover, and wild turkeys.
And as I mentioned last year, coyotes have moved back in and made themselves quite at home.