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Remains of Mastodon Unearthed in Simi Valley

January 11, 2002|DAVID KELLY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Workers digging home sites in Simi Valley uncovered the skeletal remains of a prehistoric mastodon that scientists are calling a major discovery in California paleontology.

The skull, tusks, jaws, teeth and femur of the long-extinct mammal were found two weeks ago at the bottom of a 30-foot pit dug by workers building the 800-home Big Sky Ranch project in eastern Ventura County, north of the Ronald Reagan Freeway.

The mastodon, which is related to the modern-day elephant, will be shipped today to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History for further study and possible exhibit.

"Maybe we have a whole Jurassic Park out here," Mike Mayfield, superintendent of the construction site, said as he looked at a giant tusk on a flatbed truck. "We have hit Indian skeletons. We hit a walrus skeleton in Newbury Park, but this is the first mastodon uncovered by the company."

Scientists say that unlike their cousins, the wooly mammoth, only a handful of the smaller mastodons have been unearthed in California, with many more found in the Midwest and on the East Coast.

The Simi Valley mastodon is estimated to weigh more than 1 ton and be up to 30,000 years old. Its tusks alone weigh several hundred pounds each, and its dozen, 2-inch-long teeth are conical, unlike the flatter grazing teeth of modern elephants.

"It's quite a big deal. Only a few mastodons have ever been found in this area," said Cara Corsetti, project manager for paleontology at SWCA Environmental Consultants in Mission Viejo, which sent scientists to the Simi Valley site to excavate the mastodon. "We find a lot of marine mammals in this area--whales, sea lions, seals, walruses, early representatives of the sea cow group, but no mastodons."

A huge mastodon was found in 1997 near Hemet during construction of a dam in Riverside County.

While mastodon skeletons are rare, pygmy mammoth remains have been found on the Channel Islands. Scientists said there once was either a land bridge to the islands or the animals simply swam. Mastodons appeared 3.75 million years ago and became extinct about 11,000 years ago. Scientists believe they were powerfully built, covered in reddish hair and were up to 10 feet tall and 15 feet long--shorter but longer than today's elephants.

The Simi Valley discovery was made when a construction team was digging a pit in one of the green hillsides off Erringer Road.

Julia Frazier, a paleo-monitor hired to look out for bones and fossils, was scrambling between 15 large ground scrapers as they took off layers of dirt. Then she saw something sticking from the ground. The construction stopped while she poked around in the silt.

"I saw what I think was part of the scapula [shoulder]," the 23-year-old Downey woman said. "It was literally just an inch out of the ground. I started picking away at it with an ice pick and a whole row of teeth began to emerge. I saw these molars that were 5 inches across. I said, 'Please don't be a cow.' "

Eventually, tusks and leg bones emerged. After more than a week, the skeletal remains were out of the ground. They were all packed together in burlap and plaster, which can be cut off like a cast.

"I was pretty excited because I was used to just finding shells and small rib bones, but to find a jaw fully intact and to be from a mastodon was amazing," Frazier said.

Mayfield had the remains lifted onto a truck, where it awaited the trip to the natural history museum.

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