Riverside County Scientists Discover New Ice-Age Era Mastodon Species

Scientists say the new species has proportionally narrower teeth and differences in the hips and hind legs.

What to Know

  • A new mastodon species was discovered in SoCal.
  • The discovery helps scientists understand how mastodons evolved.
  • The fossils can be seen on display at the Western Science Center in Riverside.

Scientists in Riverside County announced the discovery of a new species of an ice age era mastodon during a news conference Wednesday.

Researchers from the Western Science Center in Hemet say the discovery of the Pacific mastodon (Mammut pacificus) challenges how they study California's ecosystems and raises questions as to how mastodons evolved and migrated across the country. Their findings were published on the PeerJ scholarly journal website.

The 10,000 year old fossil, named "Max," is the largest mastodon species found in California, researchers said. A new species of mastodon in North America has not been named in over 50 years.

"We really didn't expect this," Dr. Alton Dooley, the center's executive director and lead author of the study, said.

The ice age is so heavily studied, Dooley added, that he thought there wasn't a species left to discover. Most scientists have that preconceived notion, including his team of researchers, he said. 

"The perception going into it was, 'There pretty much is not any big ones left to discover,' so, finding a large mammoth was a shock to us," he said. "We were pulling, kicking and screaming against the idea that this was a new species."

Max's fossils were collected during excavations at Diamond Valley Lake in Hemet during the early 1990s.

In 2014, Dooley was working with the fossils to update a display panel about the more common American mastodon. At the time, it was believed Max was part of that species.

Dooley said he noticed that Max had narrower teeth, a thicker femur bone and other inconstancies when compared to the American mastodon. These differences raised questions, and prompted his team to further analyze the fossils.

In 2015, Dooley and the other researchers shared their findings with colleagues who suggested that they might be on to something big.

After years of revisions to the report, a final 58-page study was published earlier this year. 

The announcement of Max already has scientists buzzing about the findings, Dooley said. He has been replying to emails and phone calls all Thursday morning from paleontologists from around the world wanting to know more about Max.

"I'm really excited to see what comes next," Dooley said.

The new discovery is on display for the public to see at the Western Science Center in Hemet. The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. 

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