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Fossil of Rare Mammoth Is Recovered : Science: The most complete skeleton of the Ice Age beast arrives from Santa Rosa Island.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It looks like a pile of bones and plaster, and weighs nearly a ton.

But the shipment that arrived at Ventura Harbor Friday afternoon holds the secrets to the life and death of the pygmy mammoth that roamed the Channel Islands during the last Ice Age.

After two weeks of excavation, a team of scientists returned from Santa Rosa Island with the most complete skeleton of the species ever discovered.

They found the feet. They found the toes. They even found the arthritic spurs on the joints of the toes.

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“I’ve been seeing bits and pieces in museum drawers for years,” said Louise Roth, a Duke University biology professor who did her dissertation on Channel Islands mammoths. “But to see the skeleton like this was spectacular.”

Almost as soon as the scientists uncovered the fossil, found in a sand dune earlier this summer, the team began taking it apart for transport back to the mainland.

The mammoth, whose ancestors swam out to the islands off the Ventura Coast thousands of years ago, made the return trip by boat.

Waiting at the harbor were about 100 community members excited about the paleontological find and what it could do for the little-known Channel Islands National Park.

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Volunteers were selling pygmy mammoth T-shirts and handing out free champagne as park rangers used a crane to hoist two crates full of prehistoric bones off the boat. Inside the park center, visitors could see a videotape of the excavation. Plans are under way for a contest to name the mammoth.

Eventually, Friends of Channel Islands National Park hopes to raise enough money to put a fiberglass model of the creature in the visitors center. The discovery, they say, could raise the visibility of the five-island park off the Ventura County coast.

One visitor who expects to return is paleontologist Larry Agenbroad, a mammoth specialist who teaches at Northern Arizona University. Agenbroad has helped dig up more than 50 of the ancestral elephants at the Mammoth Site in South Dakota.

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But the Channel Islands trip was his first encounter with the pygmy variety, which developed after generations in the limited island space. After excavating this fossil, Agenbroad found a bone of a larger mammoth on another part of Santa Rosa.

“I think this is only going to lead to future work on the islands,” he said.

Early in the excavation, Agenbroad predicted that the skeleton would be 75% to 85% complete. Instead 90% to 95% of the fossil remained intact, he said.

The mammoth also turned out to be larger than initially predicted. Crude field measurements show that it stood about 5 1/2 to 6 feet high and weighed 2,000 to 3,000 pounds.

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The sizes of the tusk and pelvis tell scientists this was a male mammoth. Its badly worn teeth and the degree of bone fusion suggest an older animal, the equivalent of a modern elephant that is older than 50 years.

The excellent condition of the fossil suggests that this beast died a gentle death. “It just laid down and died apparently, maybe starvation, maybe drought,” Roth said.

Scientists found the breastbone and the small bones that support the mammoth’s tongue--discoveries that tell them that the skeleton was not disturbed after death. A stream of water that developed thousands of years later washed away a tusk, a foot and part of a shoulder, but otherwise the fossil remained intact.

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The complete skeleton should provide clues to what the animal ate, how it lived and why it died. “I think in the long run it will help us understand evolution a little better and extinction a little better,” Roth said.

Exactly when this particular mammoth died remains a mystery. Scientists say the creature is 20,000 to 60,000 years old. Tests planned for the sediment around the fossil should reveal something about the skeleton’s age.

The bones could also be tested for age, but Agenbroad said he doesn’t want to sacrifice a bone for such testing. Right now, the bones are braced with splints and covered with plaster to protect them.

The plaster was applied on the sandy slope where the fossil was found. Unable to carry the heavy plaster casts up a steep hill, the scientists used a helicopter to take pieces of the skeleton across the island. From there a boat carried them to the mainland.

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“I’ve never containerized a mammoth before,” Agenbroad said. “I’ve never airlifted a mammoth before. I’ve never sea-lifted a mammoth before.

“And I’ve never had champagne for getting a mammoth before,” he said, lifting his plastic glass toward the crate full of bones.


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