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Little Big Find : Skeleton of Pygmy Mammoth Is Discovered on Channel Island

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

About 26,000 years ago, pygmy mammoths no taller than ponies roamed the Channel Islands.

Now scientists have discovered what they believe is the first full, fossilized skeleton of the rare species indigenous to the islands off Ventura County, scientists and officials at Channel Islands National Park confirmed Wednesday.

In August, paleontologists and students will excavate the remains of the elephant ancestor found buried in a sand dune on one of the park’s five islands.

“What we want to do is figure out, what is this little critter that lived off the California coast?” said Jim Mead, a paleontologist involved in the project. “We don’t really understand that species at all.”

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What they do know, Mead said, is that the woolly mammoths in Southern California swam to the land that is now the Channel Islands.

And once there, they began to shrink.

“When large animals stay on an island, (succeeding generations) usually become smaller,” said Mead, who studies the species at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota and at the University of Northern Arizona.

The pygmy or dwarf mammoths measured four to six feet tall, compared to the 10- to 12-foot beasts that ended up in the La Brea Tar Pits. The island dwellers kept their tusks but lost much of their hair, becoming considerably less woolly, Mead said.

“I always like to think about what they sounded like, with those little trunks,” Mead said.

Studying the full skeleton should give scientists some insight into the rare mammoth and the environment in which it lived.

Its bones hold the key to the pygmy’s descendants, either the Columbia or Imperial variety of mammoth. Remains of both have been found in Southern California. Also, scientists hope to tell whether the mammoth ate grass or woody substances.

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That would give them a picture of the Channel Islands in the late Pleistocene age. Actually, several of the islands were one land mass at that time and much closer to the mainland, said John Johnson, curator of anthropology at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Scientists have uncovered scores of pygmy bones on the various islands, but never a full skeleton, Johnson said. In the 1950s, a former museum curator, Phil Orr, spent years trying to prove his theory that the island’s early settlers hunted the pygmy mammoths.

His finds have been pieced together into a complete skeleton on display at the museum. But he searched, in vain, for a full set of bones.

Earlier this month, a National Park Service archeologist discovered the remains by accident, said agency spokeswoman Carol Spears. Spears would not name the island, for security reasons.

After the discovery, the Park Service called in Mead and Larry Agenbroad, his partner at The Mammoth Site. They viewed the remains and set up a dig, to begin Aug. 9, with their Northern Arizona University students.

After excavating the bones, the team will preserve them with resin and plaster casts. At the South Dakota center, they will prepare molds and create a Fiberglas model for the Park Service’s visitor center at Ventura Harbor.

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The scientists will keep the bones for further study. Mead said he was delighted with the find.

“As far as we know, there is not a complete, articulated pygmy mammoth” skeleton anywhere in the world, he said. “You rarely find a complete fossil.”

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