Walrus tusk turns up in Orono

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 8:30 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Linwood White is a curious man by nature.

That’s why, as White recounted recently, the part-owner of Park’s Hardware on Mill Street picked up an odd piece of hard white material he found in October 2008 while digging a hole near the Stillwater River.

White happened to be working that day with members of the Orono Land Trust as they put in a signpost for a trail near the Stillwater River. The consensus from his co-workers that day was that it was just a piece of bone.

Yet White felt something was off. It looked like a bone, but White thought he saw enamel on it — which would make it a tooth.

Now, nearly 1½ years later, White has his answer. What he found that day, and kept for more than a year in a desk at his downtown business, was a 3-inch-long, 1-inch-wide piece of walrus tusk.

The find was recently confirmed by officials at the Illinois State Museum, where University of Maine Professor Emeritus of Biology, Ecology and Climate Change George Jacobson sent the tusk fragment for analysis last month.

“It was a great mystery solved, and it was really just because I have a lot of curiosity about stuff that comes out of the ground,” White said recently in his office at his downtown shop.

Members of the public will be able to get a closer look at the tusk during the Orono Land Trust’s annual meeting, which will be held 6:30 p.m. Friday, April 2, at the Keith Anderson Community House in Orono.

Jacobson will give a talk about the effect of climate change on Orono’s landscape.

The tusk’s age, however, is still up for debate.

Jacobson, who is also Maine’s state climatologist, said there’s a possibility the tusk could be at least 12,000 years old. Arthur Spiess, a senior archaeologist with the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, said the tusk might be just a few hundred years old.

What both men agree on, however, is that there have been walruses in Maine. A Brewer man found what was believed to be the flipper of a walrus in Orrington, according to a 1956 Bangor Daily News photograph — something that seems more a curiosity in our modern time but actually speaks to the natural and cultural history of the Pine Tree State and Atlantic Canada.

Jacobson explained the natural circumstances of walruses’ existence in what is now Maine.

About 25,000 years ago when the state was covered during the ice age, the weight of the ice compressed the ground underneath. The ice receded about 14,000 years ago, and the ocean flooded the area up to what is now Medway.

“The walruses would probably have been living on the ice margins the way they do now in the Arctic,” Jacobson said. “That walrus either died and ended up deposited there, or died on ice and ended up dropping into the water. It had to be an environment the walruses live in, and that would have been the only time [in what is now Maine].”

Spiess agreed with Jacobson that walruses were in Maine as the ice age was waning. However, Spiess said, walruses continued to live in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which is bordered by the Canadian provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, until they were hunted out in the 1600s.

It was not unheard of, he said, for a walrus to make its way into the Gulf of Maine, which Spiess said would have had at the time the characteristics of what is now the Labrador Sea near Greenland. Walrus bones have been found in sites such as shell middens along the Maine coast. It’s possible, Spiess said, that a group of Indians carried walrus bones inland.

“There have even been skeletons of Arctic seals that have been found from that time period” in Maine, he said. “But a walrus is not quite as definite a marker for that time period.”

Had White found the tusk in the typical sticky blue-gray Maine clay, Spiess might have been more certain the tusk had come from a more glacial age, but White said he found it in an area of stratified soil that had already been disturbed.

The tusk’s age doesn’t seem to matter to White, who declined to specify exactly where he found it for fear someone just as curious as himself might start digging up the area for more remains.

“It’s just the idea that the environment has changed many times and will change many, many times more,” he said. “It allows us to perceive Orono in a very different way than we do now.”

White kept the tusk in a drawer of his desk for more than a year and showed it to various UMaine faculty members whenever they came into Park’s Hardware.

Consensus was the unusual fragment was a walrus tusk, which Jacobson also believed when he saw it.

Jacobson sent the piece to colleagues at the Illinois museum, which he had visited several times for his own research.

“A few days later we heard back,” Jacobson said. “They’d compared it to material in their reference collection of bones from modern animals and matched it up with something found at an archaeological site or a paleological excavation.”

Jeffrey J. Sunders, a vertebrate paleontologist at the Illinois State Museum, verified White’s find as a piece of the right tusk of a walrus. The piece was likely from the base of the tusk that connected with the jaw.

White’s find and its subsequent identification have proved to be timely as Jacobson said UMaine’s Hudson Museum is putting together an exhibit for later this year about Maine after the ice age. The tusk — regardless of its actual age — could be part of that exhibit.

“It was underexposed for 12,000 years, so we might as well let it get a little exposure now,” White said. “I’m sure the walrus won’t mind.”

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