Thursday, July 26, 2007

Museum gets massive donation


Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History just got a mammoth donation. And it’s not cash.
It’s, well, a mammoth. The skeleton, to be precise, of a Mammuthus meridionalis, or Southern mammoth, the earliest known species of the great beast.
Unearthed during construction of a housing project in nearby Moorpark, the giant specimen will come to Santa Barbara courtesy of the Moorpark City Council, which approved the donation last week.

“It’s probably the most significant find in all of Ventura County, if not all of Southern California,” Moorpark Councilmember Roseann Mikos said last week. “...We’re not equipped to take care of it. A museum like the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History is a perfect place for something like this.”
One of the unusual things about this particular discovery is how much of the skeleton has been recovered. Paleontologists estimate they have about 80 percent of the skeletal remains. Typical mammoth finds are usually limited to a tusk here, a tooth there.
“It’s quite a discovery,” Hugh Riley, assistant city manager for Moorpark, told the Daily Sound. “This is the first time they’ve found so much of the animal’s remains.”
Karl Hutterer, executive director of the Santa Barbara museum, said the discovery is coming at a great time, in the midst of an overall renovation of the Paleontology and Geology Hall. He plans to bring the mammoth as the focal point of that section of the museum.
Paul Collins, curator of vertebrate zoology at the museum, estimates that the reconstructed skeleton will stand about 12 feet tall at its shoulders, with tusks about 8 feet long.
“Our blue whale is on this kind of scale, but in terms of terrestrial mammals, we don’t have anything like this,” Collins said. “We’re talking big.”
Collins said the Southern mammoth predates other species, such as the Colombian or Imperial mammoths, which have been found in Southern California in places like the La Brea Tar Pits. He estimates the age of the once-hairy beast to be around 800,000 to a million years old, placing it in the early Pleistocene epoch.
Riley said Southern mammoth remains have only been discovered on two other occasions in Southern California, and he hopes the museum will move forward with a public exhibit.
“We took ownership of the fossils and I’ve been searching for a permanent home for them with a museum that will not only take care of them and curate them, but also has a desire to do something with them,” Riley said.
For now, the bones are resting in a warehouse in Santa Ana, where paleontologists are carefully examining them and preparing them for shipment. Once they arrive in town, Collins and his staff will work to fully excavate and stabilize them before deciding if they can go on display.
That process includes extracting the skeleton from any remaining soil, cleaning the surface of the bone, and possibly hardening the bones. Museum staff will then have to decide whether to put the real bones on display, or make casts of them.
“The nice thing about exhibiting the real bones is when the public comes to visit, they know they are looking at the real thing,” Collins said.
Museum officials are considering a work-in-progress sort of exhibit, where the public would be able to watch a skeletal reconstruction take place before their eyes. Hutterer said visitors will be able to ask staff questions as they work on the skeleton, learning more about paleontology and archeology as they watch the project unfold before them.
While Collins said it is too early to put a time frame on when the project might near completion, he said arrangements are currently being made to ship the fossils to Santa Barbara.
“It’s a neat opportunity, and it’s out of our own region,” he said. “It’s a nice fit for the institution.”
Hutterer said the skeleton should be moved within 60 days, and his staff will work to clear space and set up heavy-duty shelving for the restoration process. He emphasized the specimen’s consistency with the museum’s focus on the history of the South Coast region.
“We don’t have dinosaurs here, we have mammoths,” Hutterer said, adding, “It’s going to be quite impressive.”

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