September 2, 2008
Mammoth Skull Discovered Intact
Researchers recently uncovered a fossilized skull of a steppe mammoth in the Auvergne region of France, shedding light on the evolution of such beasts.
The find is notably rare because while a handful of mammoth skeletons have been discovered, the skull is rarely intact.
Paleontologists Frederic Lacombat and Dick Mol report that the skull belongs to a male steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) that stood about 12ft tall and lived about 400,000 years ago, during Middle Pleistocene times.
The steppe mammoth is of vital importance for understanding mammoth evolution, researchers said.
It represents the transitional phase between an ancient species known as the southern mammoth and the more recent woolly mammoth.
"This specimen is of extreme importance because we don't know that much about the Middle Pleistocene," said Mr Mol, from the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.
"Lots of the sediments have been eroded and not so many localities are known where we can find fossils.
"We cannot keep saying that we have the [southern mammoth] at the beginning of the Pleistocene, then we have something which we are not sure about, and finally we have the woolly mammoth [at the end of the Pleistocene].
"We need to find what I call the 'missing link' in mammoth evolution."
Dr Adrian Lister, a mammoth expert from London's Natural History Museum and University College London said: "If they have a complete skull then that would be very valuable."
Paleontologists estimate that the large herbivore was about 35 years old when it died after living in a savannah environment.
However, the molar teeth of steppe mammoth and woolly mammoth show that these animals were adapted to grazing.
This is thought to represent an adaptation to climate change; as conditions got colder and drier over the Pleistocene period, the savannah disappeared, making way for grassy steppe. Mammoth had to adapt their diets accordingly.
Researchers had previously uncovered the remaining skeleton of a steppe mammoth in the cliffs of West Runton in Norfolk, UK. However, most of the skull was gone leaving only its jaws and teeth.
"That is usually the case with these fossil elephants," explained Dr Lister.
According to a theory developed by Dr Lister with other researchers, the southern mammoth was once widespread in Eurasia. It then evolved into a cold-adapted form - the steppe mammoth - in eastern Asia, where the climate has been chilly for the last two million years.
However, when Ice Age conditions took hold across the northern hemisphere, the steppe mammoth spread outwards, replacing its predecessor in Europe and Asia.
The team plans to lift the skull out of the ground and transport it on a truck to Crozatier Museum in nearby Le Puy-en-Velay.
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