Boy finds rare, ancient tapir fossil in Alaska

What’s nicer than spending a day at the beach? With family and friends? Looking for interesting items to take home?

That’s exactly what Janet Klein of Homer was doing in July: enjoying a Kenai Peninsula beach with her family, grandsons Kai, 5, and Sylas, 4, and the boys’ parents, Deb Klein and George Reising of Seward, as well as friend Lolita Brache of Homer — each of them looking for interesting items.

What they found — what Kai found, to be exact — exceeded their wildest expectations.

“Daddy and Mom were getting out sandwiches from the backpack, sitting on a nice log. I looked down and right in front of Dad’s foot I saw what I thought was petrified wood,” said Kai.

That petrified wood turned out to be something rarer, a 10-million-year-old jawbone from a tapir, a pig-like mammal with a long snout that inhabits regions of South and Central America and Southeastern Asia. It’s one of the few, if not the only, land mammal fossils found from the Miocene geologic era in Alaska.

The brothers are very science- and fossil-savvy. Their father teaches math and science at Seward High School and their mother is a biologist. Janet Klein, whom the boys refer to as Granny J, is a historian and author, and has been instrumental in identifying and dating items such as an ankle bone and a tusk that through radiocarbon dating have been shown to be from woolly mammoths which roamed the Kenai Peninsula 50,000 years ago.

The family eagerly shared details of their memorable day on the beach.

“(Kai) brought it to Mom and she flipped it over,” Sylas said.

“We all went, ‘There’s teeth,’” said Deb Klein of the moment it became clear to the six beachcombers that they were looking at something other than petrified wood. Janet Klein’s experience made it possible to begin eliminating what the find wasn’t.

“Dad said he thought it was a mammoth, but Granny J said it can’t be a mammoth because it doesn’t have the right teeth,” said Sylas.

“We were thinking it was Pleistocene,” said Deb Klein of a period that lasted from about 2 million to 11,000 years ago.

“But Granny J said it was older than Pleistocene,” said Kai. Instead, Janet Klein was considering Miocene, roughly 23 to 5 to million years ago. Having written how rare vertebrate fossils from the Tertiary, now Neogene and Paleogene, were and how there was a big hole in the Alaska fossil record for this time period, the possibility her grandson had found one was very exciting.

Discussion of what Kai had found continued after the family returned home. Books were hauled out. Pictures were looked at. Possibilities were considered. They were fairly certain they had an entire mandible, lower jaw.

“Granny J was so excited she couldn’t sleep,” said Kai.

Wanting additional input, they turned to Soldotna geologist Dick Reger and Tom Cooper, owner of Alaska Horn and Antler in Sterling, who also were very excited to see what Kai had found. Gradually the idea that it was from a tapir began to take shape.

“Or a whole new animal,” said Kai, demonstrating a scientific mind open to new possibilities.

“Kai knew immediately from us that it was not his to keep and had such scientific value that it had to go to a museum repository where it could be cleaned and studied,” said Janet Klein.

Reger and Cooper also agreed that, whatever it was, it had potential scientific value and needed to go to a research facility.

In May, the Reising-Klein family had traveled to the University of Alaska Museum of the North in Fairbanks to see an exhibit on polar dinosaurs. While there, they met with paleontologist Patrick Druckenmiller, PhD, the museum’s earth sciences curator, with whom Janet Klein had worked in the past. The meeting proved fortuitous.

“I emailed him and said ‘Remember that five-and-a-half year old you met in May? Well…,’” said Deb Klein, informing Druckenmiller of the item and the young scientist who found it. A month later, the family met with Druckenmiller in Sutton and handed over Kai’s find.

“This is exciting for a couple of reasons,” said Druckenmiller. “Two words that don’t go together are ‘Alaska’ and ‘tapir.’ The fact that (Kai) was able to find the first remains of this group in the state is really cool.”

The tapir’s appearance is a strange combination of hippo, pig and anteater, but its closest relatives are rhinoceros and horse. According to tapirs.org, tapirs have been around since the Eocene, 34-56 million years ago, successfully escaping several waves of extinction of other animals. The four living species are found in the forests of Central and South America and Southeast Asia.

“From the last ice age we have gobs and gobs and gobs of fossils of mammals — mammoths, mastodons, horses. But this fossil is around 10 million years old,” said Druckenmiller. “The bottom line is that this is a very rare find. It’s a group of animals we suspected, but didn’t really know for sure, lived in Alaska. Now we can say they did.”

The family was discreet about sharing their news.

“We want to be as vague as possible because this fossil was found on state-owned land,” said Druckenmiller, referring to laws that protect discoveries on state and federal land. (See sidebar)

Having news of this magnitude is hard to keep quiet, however. Rumors of a new discovery filtered through the Anchorage, Seward and Homer grapevine. Janet Klein received calls asking if she’d heard about a major find. One caller reported a rhinoceros fossil had been found.

When Cooper examined the piece, he pointed to a fresh break, indicating another piece of the animal’s bone structure might be in the same area, another reason for guarding the location.

“If additional remains are discovered in situ (in place), then an excavation may occur, so we don’t want the site to be compromised in the meantime,” said Janet Klein.

For now, Druckenmiller is cleaning the fossil, with a close eye on the details of its teeth.

“It’s those teeth that tell me it’s some sort of extinct tapir, but I haven’t studied them enough yet to know if it’s a known species from somewhere else or if it’s potentially something new,” said Druckenmiller. “I honestly don’t know where the closest (tapir) fossil is in North America, but suffice it to say I’ll probably have to go thousands of miles to find one. I would not at all be surprised if this was something new.”

Kai urged anyone making a similar find contact Druckenmiller. He also had advice for other families enjoying time on peninsula beaches.

“Look for something that looks like wood, but kind of different,” Kai said.

McKibben Jackinsky is a freelance writer who lives in Homer. She can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@gmail.com.

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