Posted by: coastlinesproject | January 17, 2014

Plum Island; Will another wooly mammoth be found in this rapidly eroding island?

The High Sandy Pachyderm
Plum Island
August 31, 2013

A wicked bizarre New England story emerged on the last day of August. Like so many New England stories, this one started in New York. For the past sixty years Federal agencies including the Army Chemical Corps and Homeland Security had been studying animal diseases on a pork chop shaped piece of land off the outermost end of Long Island. It went by the innocuous name of the Plum Island Animal Research Facility.

But in 2008, Congress voted to relocate this bioterrorism laboratory to a place called of all things; Manhattan, Kansas, and to sell the island to be developed. But who would want to live on an island riddled with Anthrax and Rinderpest spores? First the government had to conduct an exhaustive study to see whether the research had left behind any contamination.

During the course of the study, an environmental group found an old newspaper article about the discovery of the remains of a wooly mammoth on the island in 1879. They were elated because it meant that more archeological studies would have to be done before the island could be sold.

The New York media ran with the story, it never quite rang true. The article said the massive skull; backbone and leg had been discovered near a life saving station. But there had never been a life saving station on Plum Island in New York!

Eventually a librarian discovered that the article had originally appeared in the old Newburyport Herald and was about Plum Island Massachusetts, not Plum Island, New York. A local Long Island paper had lifted the article word for word, as was their wont in those days, saying, “the skull was between two and three feet wide and there was a length of backbone over seven feet long. In form the skull was like that of an elephant and the leg bone as of enormous solidity when it belonged to the animal buried there.”

Once the story shifted back to New England more questions emerged. Exactly where had the bones been found? Where were they now, and what significance did they have for modern day Plum Island?

The article said that “gentlemen” had found the skeleton protruding from, “an elevation of sand know as ‘Brothers’ Beach,’ 150 feet long and 50 feet high, one of the largest sand hills on the island. Latterly the winds have blown it away, so that the sand dune has lowered to a height of only a few feet.”

The problem was nobody knew where Brothers Beach had once been. Jerry Klima, a former selectman from Salisbury who had studied numerous historic maps of the island thought that it was probably one of the places where people congregated after the Civil war to enjoy their weekend picnics.

But the original article had also said that the site was near a life saving station. In 1879 there was only one life saving station on Plum Island and it was in the center of the island in a place now known as High Sandy. Today High Sandy is located in the Parker River Wildlife Refuge between parking lot 1 and 2. I drove down there to investigate but finally gave up. The original site was now probably under ten feet of water and a hundred feet offshore.

The other mystery was where the bones are now. I called up all the usual suspects; the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, the Peabody Museum at the Andover Academy in Andover, and what I still call the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. The curator of vertebrae and invertebrate Paleontology Jessica Cundiff checked through her database and found nothing. She suggested that if the bones were ever found they would make a stunning exhibit in the Parker River Wildlife Refuge’s new auditorium near the entrance to the island.

The article had also mentioned that the bones were already crumbly from being interned so long in the drying sands of the sand dune. We agreed that the remains of the bones had probably crumbled away in the attic of one of the old sea captain’s houses on High Street.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the bones was that they showed how much the dunes have migrated and the beach has eroded since 1879, to say nothing of since the end of the last Ice age. There is even the possibility that this pachyderm died in the wake of a comet impact in Quebec that wiped out most of the North American mega-fauna 12,900 years ago. This caused local Paleo-Indians to switch from being big game hunters to small game hunters and gatherers which eventually led to agriculture.

But in 1879 the beach was close to two hundred feet east of its present location and the winds were still pushing sand dunes over the old Paleolithic drumlins. The beach was still eroding back at the rate of two to three feet a year. When will another wooly mammoth emerge from the center of Plum Island? Only time will tell…


Bill Sargent will be speaking about Plum Island at the Institutions for Savings on October 9th. Proceeds from the sale of his books will help support the Storm Surge Lecture Series to be held from October through December. His books can also be purchased at local bookstores and at http://www.strawberry and through

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