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“Mammoth Hunting on the Channel Islands” By: Lauren Parry

Published on November 13, 2015 under Current Research
“Mammoth Hunting on the Channel Islands” By: Lauren Parry

Greetings from Las Vegas, NV!  My name is Lauren Parry, and I was an intern at The Mammoth Site for the summer of 2015 and a Dr. Larry Agenbroad Legacy Fund for Research grant recipient.  I am currently a graduate student at the University of Nevada Las Vegas studying Quaternary Paleoecology.  My research interests include evaluating the ecological relationships Columbian mammoths had with their mainland environment, compared to populations formerly inhabiting the Channel Islands.  Columbian mammoths were found not just in South Dakota, but all across North America.  The fossils I am studying for my research are found in Southern Nevada and Southern California, where Ice-Age mammoths once lived among expansive grasslands, sagebrush-covered springs, but also dangerous carnivores like saber-toothed cats and American lions.  Thousands of years ago, some of these mammoths swam from Southern California to the island Santarosae.  This island was covered with rugged terrain, coniferous trees, and no large predators to be found.  As a result, the island mammoths became smaller and smaller over thousands of years, giving rise to a new species: the pygmy mammoth.  Once sea level rose again after the last Ice Age, the island Santarosae was separated into smaller islands, known today as the Channel Islands.  Much of this land is now managed by the National Parks Service to preserve this unique habitat.  Remote, fossiliferous, and beautiful, the Channel Islands are unique and exciting place to conduct paleontological fieldwork.  The Mammoth Site has been collaborating with Channel Islands National Park since 1994, and continues to be at the forefront of paleontological research on the islands.

Santa Rosa Island: During the last Ice Age, all of the Channel Islands were united by lower sea levels and called Santarosae. Today, the islands are characterized by wave-cut terraces, unique vegetation and an abundance of mammoth remains. It is the only place in the world where the pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) is found.

Santa Rosa Island: During the last Ice Age, all of the Channel Islands were united by lower sea levels and called Santarosae. Today, the islands are characterized by wave-cut terraces, unique vegetation and an abundance of mammoth remains. It is the only place in the world where the pygmy mammoth (Mammuthus exilis) is found.

In early October, I had the incredible opportunity of joining a Mammoth Site expedition out to Channel Islands National Park (CHIS) of California.  I accompanied Bonebed Curator, Justin Wilkins, and retired CHIS Archaeologist/Mammoth Site excavation crew chief, Don Morris to Santa Rosa Island for a weeklong excavation of a mammoth skull.  So far, the skull seems to be on the bigger side of a pygmy mammoth, but further investigations will tell us more!  Justin, Don, and Preparator, Monica Bugbee, excavated the tusks of this animal last season.  There are lots of research questions to answer for this island habitat, some of which are hoping to be answered by students like myself, and Mammoth Site scientists.  Part of the quest by The Mammoth Site is to determine if pygmy mammoths evolved from a single population of mainland Columbian mammoths or if there were multiple waves of travel to and from the islands.  The skull that we are currently working on might be of intermediate size between a Columbian and pygmy mammoth. If that were the case, it would help us to interpret whether or not the two species could interbreed.

Cramped quarters: digging was tough in Arlington Canyon due to thick gravel deposits. The trench dug around the specimen was a tight squeeze for Don Morris (left), which I (right) apparently found amusing.

Cramped quarters: digging was tough due to thick gravel deposits. The trench dug around the specimen was a tight squeeze for Don Morris (left), which I (right) apparently found amusing.

I was able to use a portion of my Legacy Fund grant as travel expenses to and from California, without which, the trip wouldn’t have been possible!  Data collected from this trip and on future expeditions will be used by Justin to conduct studies on Channel Islands micro-fauna.  My research interests include sampling and analyzing tooth enamel for stable isotope data to interpret island mammoth diet and potential nutritional stress.  Dr. Agenbroad took many surveying and collecting trips to CHIS throughout his career, and recognized the islands as a world-class paleontological site.  I couldn’t have thought of a better way to honor his legacy than to continue fieldwork and research in this fascinating place!  The story of Ice-Age island habitats is being pieced together year after year, and there is still so much to discover and learn.  I look forward to visiting the islands again, and I am so grateful for the support of The Mammoth Site and the Dr. Larry Agenbroad Legacy Fund for Research.

Sunset on the beach, Santa Rosa: Many useful tools washed up on the beach; we were able to salvage shovels, as well as lobster traps that were used as erosion control at our dig site in preparation of winter storms.

Sunset on the beach, Santa Rosa: Many useful tools washed up on the beach; we were able to salvage shovels, as well as lobster traps that were used as erosion control at our dig site in preparation of winter storms.