Mammoths have always fascinated people. From the creators of the earliest known cave painting and carvings to 20th century practitioners of modern art and even to today's tourists, humans have tried to grasp the essence of this magnificent creature – its enormous size, strength and beauty and its coexistence with and importance to humans. In 1994, paleontologists made the remarkable discovery of a pygmy mammoth on Santa Rosa Island, the most complete collection of its kind in the world.
Found only on the California Channel Islands and nowhere else in the world, the pygmy mammoth was probably a small form of the Columbian mammoth found on the mainland. Pygmy mammoths varied from 4.5 to 7 feet high at the shoulders and may have weighed only about 2,000 pounds, compared to the 14-foot tall, 20,000 pound Columbian mammoth. In other respects, they were probably similar, with short fur, a typical mammoth body form, and a relatively large head.
The first remains of "elephants" on Santa Rosa Island were reported in 1873. Additional excavations over the years have given a basic understanding of a population of mammoths on the islands which became smaller in body size through time and which perished as the Pleistocene ended. Paleontological excavations on Santa Rosa Island in 1927 and 1928 resulted in the retrieval of a significant collection of a new species described as Mammuthus exilis. Philip Orr of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History recovered additional materials during archeological and geological work on Santa Rosa Island during the 1940s and 1950s.
Remains of mammoths are most common on Santa Rosa and
The Journey to the Islands
Approximately 40,000 to 20,000 years ago, a small group of 14-foot tall, 20,000-pound Columbian mammoths embarked on a journey that would eventually end in the development of a new species—the Channel Islands pygmy mammoth. Leaving the heavily grazed mainland behind, these Columbian mammoths swam towards the scents of abundant vegetation from the huge, mountainous island of Santarosae.
Approximately 20,000 years ago when sea level was about 300 feet lower than it is today, the four northern islands joined together to form an Ice Age “superisland” known as Santarosae. This island was only 6 miles from the mainland at its closest distance. As the ice sheets and glaciers melted and the sea level rose, only the highest parts of Santarosae remained as modern islands.
But how did they reach the island? With their snorkel-like trunk and buoyant mass, elephants, living relatives of mammoths, are considered excellent distance swimmers, among the best of all land mammals, and skilled at crossing watergaps. Documented accounts demonstrate that Asian elephant swim to islands they cannot even see – some up to 23 miles away—guided by the odor of ripening fruit and vegetation. There is no reason that Pleistocene mammoths were not just as seaworthy, and just as good at swimming.