Well-preserved mammoth skull unearthed on Channel Islands puzzles scientists

Scientists believe they have found the remains of one of Southern California’s very early beach bums. 

The skull of an extinct species of elephant  — which possibly roamed the state 13,000 years ago — was unearthed on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands National Park.

The diminutive pygmy mammoth existed only in the Channel Islands, and evolved from a group of much larger Columbian mammoths that swam to the islands 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, according to scientists.

These intrepid Columbian mammoths made their journey during the Ice Age, when sea levels were 300 feet lower and the four northern Channel Islands were joined together in one giant land mass called Santarosae.

Scientists speculate the hulking mammoths were lured by the scent of edible plants wafting from the island and used their trunks as snorkels — much the way elephants do today. 

Buried in an eroding stream bank, the “exceptionally well-preserved fossil” with tusks is a rare find, especially because it would indicate the mammoth roamed the islands at nearly the same time as humans.

"I have seen a lot of mammoth skulls and this is one of the best preserved I have ever seen," paleontologist Justin Wilkins said in a statement.

Wilkins, who works at the South Dakota-based Mammoth Site, said the discovery is “of high scientific importance.” Along with retired National Park Service archaeologist Don Morris and preparator Monica Bugbee, Wilkins painstakingly excavated the fossil from layers of dirt.

Charcoal samples found near the skull date back roughly 13,000 years, which overlaps with the age of the oldest human skeletal remains in North America. The Arlington Springs Man’s remains were found on the Santa Rosa Island in 1959 and indicate that people also lived there some 13,000 years ago.

The mammoth fossil was discovered in September 2014. National Park Service biologist Peter Larramendy was surveying the area for a stream study when he observed an ivory tusk bulging from the gravel wall of the canyon. Scientists named the fossil Larry after Larramendy and one of world’s leading paleontologists, Larry Agenbroad, who died in 2014.

The size of the find has left the scientists puzzled because they can’t determine if it’s a Columbian or pygmy mammoth, according to the park.

Over time, melting ice caused sea levels to rise, and Santarosae’s highest mountain peaks became individual islands. Scientists have hypothesized that with less land and less food available, a smaller species of island mammoth evolved: Mammuthus exilis. Instead of standing 14 feet tall like their ancestors, these pygmy mammoths stood just 6 feet high.

The recent discovery, however, suggests the real story might be more complicated. It’s possible the fossil could be an intermediate-sized or young Columbian mammoth. 

Researchers are also baffled by the fossil’s tusks. The one on the right measures 1.4 meters long and coils like that of an older mammoth, but the left tusk is shorter and sloped like that of a juvenile mammal.

Scientists are working to measure the spacing, surface thickness and number of teeth in the fossil to determine when it died and what type of mammoth it was.

Meanwhile, the team will cover the specimen with burlap and plaster to protect it.

The scientists will then transport the fossil by helicopter and boat to the mainland. The mammoth will be taken to the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, so it can be carefully cleaned, preserved and studied.

The fossil will then be curated and displayed in the future.

 

 

 

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details on the history of mammoths in the Channel Islands.

This article was originally published at 6:15 a.m.

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