Researchers have hit paleontology pay dirt with the unearthing of a well-preserved mammoth skull fossil on Santa Rosa Island, in Southern California's Channel Islands.
"I have seen a lot of mammoth skulls and this is one of the best preserved I have ever seen," said a member of the team that made the find, The Mammoth Site paleontologist Justin Wilkins, in a statement.
The fossil, Wilkins added, "is extremely rare and of high scientific importance. It appears to have been on the Channel Islands at the nearly same time as humans."
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Scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) have dated the skull to about 13,000 years ago. The timing makes the find all the more tantalizing, because it is the same timeline assigned to the so called "Arlington Man," a 13,000-year-old human skeleton also found on Santa Rosa.
Among the questions yet to be answered involves the species of mammoth represented by the skull. To date, the researchers say it appears too large to have come from a pygmy mammoth and too small to have come from a Columbian mammoth.
The scientists say a closer examination of the fossil teeth, a process not yet complete, should be able to tell them whether the animal was a pygmy or a Columbian mammoth. (The chance of its being a transitional mammoth species was called "less likely" in a release.) It will also help them peg the animal's age at the time of death to within two years.
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Mammoths first appeared in North America roughly 2 million years ago. The Columbian species, about 14 feet tall, reached the Channel Islands in two migrations during the last two ice ages, when the land was more accessible due to lower sea levels, scientists think. Pygmy mammoths of only about 6 feet tall descended from those Columbian travelers and were endemic to the islands.
According to USGS geologist Dan Muhs, who in 2013 found an 80,000-year-old pygmy mammoth tusk on Santa Rosa, the new find helps solidify that story on the island.
"The discovery of this mammoth skull increases the probability that there were at least two migrations of Columbian mammoths to the island: during the most recent ice age 10 to 30,000 years ago, as well as the previous glacial period that occurred about 150,000 years ago," said Muhs.
The "downsizing" from Columbian to pygmy mammoth could have taken place relatively fast, on the order of several thousand years, Muhs said.
The fossil is next headed to the mainland and a home at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, where it will be studied further and eventually shown to the public.
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