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July 19, 2017

PBS Student Reporting Labs: Mammoth archaeological discovery made in Channel Islands National Park

Scientists study pygmy mammoth skull from Channel Islands National Park from Student Reporting Labs on Vimeo.

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  • 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, and PBS NewsHour Student Reporting Labs observed the milestone by producing video stories about national parks across the country in a series called “America the Beautiful.”
    • Many of the videos explore how experts and scientists in national parks are working to preserve the landscape and wildlife in the face of obstacles such as climate change and invasive species.
  • One story covered the discovery of a Pygmy mammoth skull in Channel Islands National Park off the coast of California. The story was produced by students at Etiwanda High School in Rancho Cucamonga, California.
  • The Pygmy mammoth was a species of ancient elephant that ranged approximately 13,000 years ago.
  • The skull is very well preserved, including the fragile back part which is often found crushed or broken. Scientists estimate that it might be in between the two mammoth species (Columbian and Pygmy) and give clues to how the Columbian species dwarfed to the Pygmy species.
  • Experts at the Channel Islands have used radiocarbon dating to estimate that the skull is about 15,000 years old. Currently, the skull is being cleaned and prepared for display.
  • The Channel Islands are particularly well suited to archaeological discoveries because they lack burrowing animals that could disrupt sedimentary rock and the fossil record.

Discussion questions:
  1. Essential question: What can excavation and studying fossils tell us about life thousands of years ago?
  2. How did the scientists estimate the age of the skull? Is an age of 15,000 years comparatively old for a fossil? Explain.
  3. What skills, such as observation and patience, are important to the practice of archaeology? Explain.
  4. Why is it important for students to be their own mediamakers? What could students learn about journalism if they are responsible for interviewing characters and shooting their own pieces?

Key Terms:

radiocarbon datingmeasuring the amount of carbon-14 in a sample and using its half-life to calculate the age of the sample

Extension activity:

Check out more student-produced videos from the NewsHour Student Reporting Labs’ series “America the Beautiful.” What stories would you be interested in making films about in your community?

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