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PYGMY MAMMOTH UPDATE



A nearly complete pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) fossil skeleton, found in 1994, is providing new insight into this poorly known animal, which lived during the Pleistocene. Radiocarbon dating shows this animal lived almost 13,000 years ago.

The northern Channel Islands of Santa Cruz, Santa Rosa, and San Miguel were the home of the Pygmy Mammoth (Mammuthus exilis),a population of small animals that developed on the islands from full sized ancestors, most likely Mammuthus columbi, which swam across the Santa Barbara Channel sometime during the Pleistocene; the crossing might well have occurred about 20,000 years ago when sea level was lowest.

At that time the three islands, together with Anacapa Island, were joined in a land mass known as Santa Rosae, a land mass about four times the size of present day Santa Rosa Island (52,794 acres, 213 qkm). This large land mass was then only about five miles (8 km) distant from the mainland.

These animals stood about four to eight feet (120-240 cm) high at the shoulder, compared to their full size ancestors, which reached as high as fourteen feet (425 cm).

Pygmy populations derived from elephants or mammoths are known from several locations throughout the world, including the islands of Malta and Sicily in the Mediterranean, several islands in southeast Asia, and Wrangell Island in the Arctic. Mammuthus exilis is the only example known from the New World, and all previous descriptions of the animal were based on isolated bones recovered from the park islands. The discovery of a complete skeleton promised greatly increased understanding of this isolated species, as well as important insights into speciation in an island environment.

Excavation revealed a complete skeleton missing only the right tusk, one foot, and a minor portion of the skull. The small bones of both right feet were in complete articulation. Excavation uncovered the hyoid bone and sternum, the first ever recovered from this species, in life position.

Standing five and one half feet (170 cm) tall and weighing about one ton, the animal is a male, about fifty-seven years old (relative to African elephant years), with pronounced arthritic spurs in his feet. He had been walking along the coast on the north shore of the island when he laid down, fell over on his left side, and died nearly 13,000 years ago. The animal was then quickly covered by a sand dune while his skin was still intact, accounting for the excellent articulation of the bones.

This Page was written by the Parks Archaeologist Don Morris Illustration by Susan Morris 1994

The return of the pygmy mammoth specimen to Southern California was celebrated at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History in May of 1997. Exhibits featuring exact replicas of the animal's bones have been developed at both the Museum and at Channel Islands National Park's Visitor Center in Ventura.