Environment & Science

Mammoth skull on Channel Island could reveal clues to California's early history

A rare mammoth fossil is excavated at Channel Islands National Park.
A rare mammoth fossil is excavated at Channel Islands National Park.
Brent Sumner
A rare mammoth fossil is excavated at Channel Islands National Park.
A rare mammoth fossil is excavated at Channel Islands National Park.
Brent Sumner


This week's excavation of a rare and exceptionally preserved mammoth fossil — mammoth as in species not necessarily size — on Santa Rosa Island could be a game-changer in helping us understand the prehistory of California.

"The specimen itself is in unusually good condition," Yvonne Menard, chief of interpretation at the Channel Islands National Park, tells KPCC. "It's one of the best specimens that the paleontologist working on the site has seen."

The full skull, along with two tusks, was discovered a year ago on the north coast of the island by a biologist helping conduct a stream survey.

It's rare to find an intact skull this old.

Charcoal adjacent to the fossil's location dates it to 13,000 years ago. That means this species of mammoth may have lived on, or at least visited the Channel Islands, during the end of the Pleistocene era — around the same time as the prehistoric Arlington Springs Man.

Arlington Man, which may be the oldest known human remains in North America, was discovered on Santa Rosa Island in 1959.

What species is this mammoth? No one knows yet.

"The size of the skull appears too large to be a pygmy mammoth and too small to be a Columbian mammoth," Menard says.

Scientists believe that during the Ice Age, the four northern Channel Islands existed as one landmass located four to six miles from the mainland. Compare that to modern times: These same islands are located 15 to 70 miles off the California coast.

The thinking is that Columbian mammoths swam out to the islands in search of food and, over time, adapted to the environment by downsizing to the pygmy form.

"There's some question that this particular specimen could be a transitional animal in that process of change," Menard says. Or it could be a young Columbian mammoth.

Although the excavation concludes this week, it could take six months for researchers at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to learn more details.

Whatever they find out, Menard says, "It's hopefully going to answer a lot of really important scientific questions."