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Columbian Mammoth Skull, Tusk Unearthed in Idaho

Oct 28, 2014 12:53 PM EDT
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Strange 160-million-year-old fossils reveal that the earliest mammals could glide

Part of a Columbian mammoth skull and at least one tusk have been unearthed in Idaho, and experts say that the rest of the rare skeleton may be close by.

"There may be a whole mammoth there, so that is rare," Mary Thompson, collections manager at the Idaho Museum of Natural History and an instructor at Idaho State University, told The Associated Press.

Bones of the Columbian mammoth - a creature that lived between 70,000 and 120,000 years ago - were discovered earlier this month near the American Falls Reservoir by a fossil hunter working for the US Bureau of Reclamation, according to reports. Students and instructors from Idaho State University helped with the excavation process.

But Oct. 18 rising reservoir levels put a snag in their efforts, forcing the team to postpone the rest of their dig until next summer when the water drops again. The fossils were found at about 30 feet below the reservoir high water mark.

Despite the brief delay, Thompson says this gives them the time to raise funds for the excavation and work on the pieces they recovered so far, which may be cleaned and put on display.

"This find is exciting because there are still teeth in place in the jaw - so much can be learned from that," she told the Idaho State Journal.

"It's exciting," added museum director Herb Maschner. "This will stay at the museum."

The mammal was likely 16 years old at the time of its death, growth rings on its tusk revealed.

According to BBC Nature, Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus colombi) are recognized by their impressive, spiraled tusks, measuring up to 4.9 meters (16 feet) - the largest amongst the elephant family. Not to be confused with the famous woolly mammoth, Columbian mammoths had elephant-like greyish skin with patches of hair, like on the top of its head. These behemoths ranged through the southern half of North America and south into Mexico before becoming extinct approximately 12,500 years ago.

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