A geology professor studying rock formations stumbled across what may turn out to be a unique remnant of the last Ice Age - the skeleton of a pygmy mammoth.
If intact and complete, it will be the only known example of the species in the world, the National Park Service said Tuesday."I'd rather have a million dollars, but it's a spectacular find," said Dr. Tom Rockwell, who teaches at San Diego State University.
Rockwell and graduate student Kevin Colson were researching marine rock formations for Channel Islands National Park on June 29 when they found the skull and shoulder blades of a pygmy mammoth sticking out of sand and rock on Santa Rosa Island.
"We knew right away what it was," Rockwell said. "Almost the entire spinal column, from the back of the skull to the pelvis, is exposed."
Based on the parts that are showing, scientists from California, Arizona and North Carolina hope to dig out a complete skeleton during an excavation Aug. 9 to Aug. 19.
Based on the rock and the bones' position, Rockwell estimated the age at 25,000 to 75,000 years.
Oxymorons of evolution, pygmy mammoths left their traces on several of the world's islands, where they swam from nearby mainlands and evolved into miniature versions of their giant ancestors.
The Channel Islands, off Southern California's coast, are thought to have been their only home in the Americas.
Pygmy mammoths looked like half-size versions of mainland mammoths, which were 12 to 14 feet tall. Modern elephants generally are 9 to 111/2 feet tall.
Rockwell and Colson didn't realize the significance of their find until park service archaeologist Don Morris told them no one had ever found a complete pygmy skeleton.
"That's the point at which we all got excited, when we realized how unique it was," Rockwell said.
Vegetation in the area had been mapped extensively, so Rockwell figures others must have seen the skeleton first.
"They must have figured it was a cow skeleton or something," he said.
The bones will go to northern Arizona for preservation before they are sent to a museum. The park service will make a model for display on the island.