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How this remote national park made a mammoth discovery

July 4, 2017 at 6:15 PM EDT
California's Channel Islands National Park is the site of a recent mammoth discovery: a pygmy mammoth skull, to be precise. This report was produced as part of our Student Reporting Labs by students from Etiwanda High School in Southern California.
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WILLIAM BRANGHAM: Continuing our theme of national parks, the Channel Islands National Park — they’re off the coast of Southern California — was the site of a recent discovery of part of a Pygmy mammoth, a species of ancient elephant that roamed the Earth 13,000 years ago.

This story was produced by students from Etiwanda High School in Southern California, part of the “NewsHour”‘s Student Reporting Labs.

It’s narrated by rising high school senior Nick Hinojosa.

NICK HINOJOSA: Off the California coast lies Channel Islands National Park, where archaeological discoveries are still being made.

Laura Kirn is the chief of cultural resources for the Channel Islands National Park.

LAURA KIRN, Chief of Cultural Resources, Channel Islands National Park: Channel Islands national park is world-famous for its archaeology.

Channel Islands really represent a part of California that doesn’t exist on the mainland anymore. And because we don’t have burrowing animals here, the archaeological record, the evidence in the ground is intact. And that is unheard of.

NICK HINOJOSA: The preservation of the islands’ archaeology has made it possible for new artifacts to be discovered, such as a mammoth skull excavated in fall 2016 on Santa Rosa Island.

Monica Bugbee, a preparator and archaeologist for the mammoth site in South Dakota, has begun the painstaking process of removing the skull from its plaster cast.

MONICA BUGBEE, Preparator, The Mammoth Site: This is kind of an exciting discovery because Pygmy mammoths, even though they’re really cool, everybody likes them because they’re small, they’re neat, we actually don’t know a whole lot about them.

This guy was found by a park service intern who was doing a stream survey. So, they were just doing routine walk down a canyon, and they happened to notice it.

NICK HINOJOSA: The intern who discovered the skull, Peter Larramendy, was a recent college graduate who recognized the tusk sticking out of the wall could be something much more than just a rock.

LAURA KIRN: He was part of the excavation. It was something that you dream about as a child, discovering something like a dinosaur or something really exciting.

NICK HINOJOSA: Don Morris is a retired archaeologist for the National Park Service who aided in the excavation of this discovery.

DON MORRIS, Retired Archaeologist, Channel Islands National Park: I think I can confidently say this is the best skull, Pygmy mammoth skull, that’s ever come off the island. Certainly, it’s the best one I have ever seen.

MONICA BUGBEE: This skull in particular, because it looks like it might be in the middle of the two species, Columbian and Pygmy, it can give us a much better idea of how that process actually worked. You know, how did they actually dwarf from Columbians to Pygmies?

NICK HINOJOSA: Scientists used radiocarbon dating to discover how long ago this mammoth was alive. This kind of dating is done by measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a sample and using its half-life to calculate how old the sample is.

MONICA BUGBEE: There was some charcoal that we found in the dirt, and we radiocarbon dated that, and it’s about 15,000 years old, I believe, so this guy’s actually pretty young.

NICK HINOJOSA: Justin Wilkins, a curator at the mammoth site, has been working with Bugbee to clean and prepare the skull for display.

JUSTIN WILKINS, Curator, The Mammoth Site: So in looking at the past, we can then access how our species or other species handled changes in the environment. So, we look at the mammoths. We look at humans.

We also look at a bunch of small animals to see how those animals handle these changes, and then try to decide, predict, based on the information and patterns we see from these specimens, what patterns we’re seeing in the present, how that’s going to change in the future.

NICK HINOJOSA: Much of archaeology still depends on careful observation and human work.

DON MORRIS: You have got to move dirt. You have got to keep your eyes open and pay attention to what you’re observing.

LAURA KIRN: It’s incredibly exciting to think that these things are still out here, they’re still very fragile, and we want to protect them and study them in the right ways. But it doesn’t mean that people can’t still discover exciting new things that happen to be thousands of years old on Santa Rosa Island.

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