HATTIESBURG, Miss. (AP) - Growing up in the Panama Canal Zone, Dr. John Turner realized that he had an eagle’s eye when it came to finding fossils and artifacts. But little did he know the keepsakes of years past would play a part in major scientific discoveries for Panama and paleontologists around the globe.
In 1959, Turner was on the cusp of 17 and living a life of adventure that many young boys and men dream of. Amid the days spent exploring local jungles and lakes, he discovered something along the shores of Madden Lake.
“When I was there by myself, I was walking around one day just down to where all the canoes were for the scouts, and I said, ‘What is that?’ and picked up a tooth. My mother worked at the library, and I would research it,” said Turner, 71, an optometrist at Hattiesburg Vision Clinic.
“I thought it could have been a mastodon tooth.”
Placing the unique tooth with his impressive collection of sharks’ teeth, turtle bones and other various findings, it wasn’t until more than half a century later that Turner’s discovery emerged in the world of science.
Turner was preparing to travel to Orlando, Florida, for his wife Lynn’s high school reunion last year when he discovered a fossil presentation would be given at the reunion.
That was where Turner first met Bruce MacFadden, curator and professor of paleontology at the Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida in Gainesville.
“That’s when I discussed and told him about my tooth,” Turner said. “He said, ‘Send me a picture of it,’ so I sent him one, and he said it could be a mastodon tooth. Well, he collaborated with a paleontologist at the museum at New Mexico, and he happened to be at an island (in Panama) studying mastodons. So, he said, ‘With your permission, I’m going to send him this picture.’ A day or so later he fired it back and said that the guy said, ‘That tooth is probably of scientific importance, so at some point we would like to examine it.’”
MacFadden said the picture Turner sent him led him to believe the tooth belonged to “a common, Ice Age mastodon.” then, Turner sent him the tooth.
“He sent me the tooth, and it is much, much smaller,” he said. “It’s the better part of a lower molar from the jaw.”
MacFadden said, when he saw the tooth, he became excited about the possibility that it belonged to a gomphotherium.
“The gomphoterium is a kind of ancient elephant-like mammal,” MacFadden said. “It’s an ancestor to the mastodon that became extinct at the end of the Ice Age.”
While other gomphotherium have been found in Asia, MacFadden said Turner’s gomphothere tooth discovery means new things for the history of the extinct animal.
“The Panama discovery is interesting because that’s as far south as we’ve ever found it, and it’s never been found in Panama before,” he said.
MacFadden said the past year has been like solving a mystery.