Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History Offers Mammoth Mondays

Posted on Feb 9 by SEASONS Magazine

Unveiling the Santa Rosa Mammoth Skull Fossil at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Photo by Lauren Bennett.

Unveiling the Santa Rosa Mammoth Skull Fossil at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Photo by Lauren Bennett.

The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History (2559 Puesta Del Sol) will be offering Mammoth Mondays throughout February. Mammoth Mondays allow the public to experience excavating from a new mammoth skull from Santa Rosa Island from paleontologist’s perspective. Mammoth Mondays will be offered February 13, 20 and 27. There will also be chances to experience this inside look at a fossil on weekends throughout the month—mammoth excavation takes place Saturdays on February 11, 18 and 25.

The Santa Rosa Mammoth Skull Fossil at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History.

Monica Bugbee explaining the preparation process of a fossil at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. Photo by Lauren Bennett.

The newly unearthed fossil from Santa Rosa Island is currently unidentified. This fossil was excavated from an eroding stream bank on the island—it is a complete mammoth skull and it is extremely well-preserved. The museum is taking an interdisciplinary approach to researching this fossil. Paleontologists, archaeologists, and geologists have congregated to determine whether this fossil is a Columbian Mammoth or a Pygmy Mammoth. Scientists are leaning toward the idea that the fossil is from a Columbian Mammoth—this species was one of the largest types of mammoths across continental North America. If this is the correct origin of the fossil, the small size of the skull indicates that it was a young mammoth at the point of its death.

This is intriguing knowledge because it indicates that either the parents of this young mammoth or the young mammoth itself migrated to Santa Rosa Island. Although many may assume that Santa Rosa Island and the California mainland were connected by a land bridge during this period, this is erroneous. The four channel islands Santa Rosa, San Miguel, Santa Cruz and Anacapa were once all connected, forming one large island mass called Santa Rosae, however, the four were always separated from the mainland. If the Columbian Mammoth migrated, it swam across the ocean. Mammoths, like their modern day descendants, elephants, could swim adeptly. They would likely swim to the Channel Islands because of fierce carnivorous predators like the Dire Wolf and the Saber Tooth Tiger. If the fossil is from a Pygmy Mammoth, then it is naturally a small mammoth native to the Channel Islands but uncharacteristically large for its species. Either outcome will open captivating avenues for research.

The teeth of this fossil have yet to be uncovered—when they are, they will be one of the biggest determining factors of figuring out the species. Unearthing the fossil is meticulous work, it requires a discerning eye and unwavering patience. The fossil is still covered in a large amount of dirt and protective wrap to preserve it in its very delicate state. The first step paleontologists take is to preserve the fossil by applying a very thin layer of liquid hardener dissolved in acetone to the exposed bone. Then they begin gently clearing away dirt and outside debris using small tools like a wooden knitting needle for loose dirt and a metal dental pick for small rocks and more embedded dirt. All of the rocks, dirt and debris removed from the fossil will be collected for research. These materials can potentially give insight into other species roaming on the island around the time including humans—it is speculated that this mammoth could have been roaming while the first humans inhabited the earth. This meticulous process will take many months to complete. Visiting during one of the Mammoth Mondays throughout February will give visitors a unique inside look at this fascinating process.

For more information, visit sbnature.org or call 805/682-4711.

—Lauren Bennett

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