First CT Scan Of An Entire Mammoth Tusk Allows Paleontologists To See Much "Bigger" Picture

One of the obstacles to understanding large fossils has been overcome with an expanded CT scanner, whose capacity has been demonstrated by processing a mammoth tusk in one go.


Stephen Luntz

Stephen has a science degree with a major in physics, an arts degree with majors in English Literature and History and Philosophy of Science and a Graduate Diploma in Science Communication.

Freelance Writer

A 17,000 year old woolly mammoth tusk from central Switzerland in a CT scanner
A woolly mammoth tusk in the first scanner capable of studying it in one go. The tusk was fixed in a fiberglass frame to guarantee transport and table-movement stability. Image Credit: Radiological Society of America

Computerized tomography (CT) scans have become a vital tool for paleontologists, allowing them to see inside without needing to damage priceless items. However, scanning machines can only tackle objects up to a certain size, and until recently that size limit has hindered our understanding of some of the giant creatures that once roamed Earth.

The journal Radiology carries welcome news of the deployment of a clinical CT scanner capable of tackling big, one could say mammoth, items. To demonstrate, they have provided images of the inside of a 2-meter tusk.


“Working with precious fossils is a challenge since it is important not to destroy or harm the specimen,” said Dr Tilo Niemann of Kantonsspital Baden in a statement. Niemann’s day-to-day work concerns humans whose chests need study. Mammoths probably break the monotony, but they do create challenges.

“Even if there exist various imaging techniques to evaluate the internal structure, it was not possible to scan a whole tusk in toto without the need for fragmentation or at least having to do multiple scans that then had to be painstakingly assembled,” Niemann said. That’s changed with the new scanner architecture.

A CT-scan of an entire mammoth tusk seen both side and edge-on
(A) Volume-rendering reconstruction shows the tusk's dentin conal structure. (B) Illustration of the dentin conal structure and the shape of the tusk and skull. (C) Curved-planar reconstruction CT image centered in the tusk, with orange lines representing the level of perpendicular sections corresponding to images D–F. (D–F) Cross sections of CT images show concentric fissures in the dentin, with (E) mild artifact in the most peripheral scan field. Image Credit: Radiological Society of North America

Like African elephants, but unlike their Asian counterparts, both male and female mammoths had large tusks. It is thought these were useful for both sexes for scraping bark off trees and accessing food through the snow or frozen ground, while the males probably also used their mighty ivories for fighting. 

Four thousand years after the last mammoths left us, however, scientists have found other uses, such as determining the former owner’s age and any dramatic life events.


The tusk chosen to demonstrate the new capacity comes from a Swiss mammoth thought to have died 17,000 years ago and measures 2.06 meters (7 feet) long. Its curvature creates an 80 cm (2.5 feet) wide loop, making a neat fit for the 82-centimeter-wide machine. The base of the tusk is 16 cm (6.2 inches) in diameter, but its tip is missing, so its true length must have been greater.

Mammoth tusks are structured like a series of cones stacked inside each other, with the oldest at the tip. Periods of famine or other stresses can be recorded in specific cones, and can be used to find the owner’s age at the time.

The scan revealed 32 cones, providing a minimum age for the mammoth of 32 years, plus whatever was lost in the tip. Along with the annual period visible in the tusk growth, it is possible to see daily and even weekly deposition patterns.


  • tag
  • animals,

  • Ice Age,

  • mammoth,

  • extinct