Mammoth migrates to UC

Artifacts found by Caltrans go to school

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 23, 2013 

— Ancient mammoth bones dating back to the ice age were on the move Friday, making a 38-mile trek from Madera to UC Merced's research facility at Castle Commerce Center.

The artifacts will be studied, cleaned and then put on display at UC Merced's main campus.

The fossils were discovered last November during excavation for the $128 million Highway 99-Arboleda Drive Project, according to officials with the California Department of Transportation. Officials found bones belonging to Colombian mammoths, bison, horses, camels and antelope at the site. They were being kept at a Caltrans facility in Madera.

Mark Aldenderfer, dean of UC Merced's school of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, said the mammoth remains — two tusks, a femur and an upper skull with teeth — will be examined by UC Merced scientists at Castle.

"They'd like to know more about the species," Aldenderfer said. "If the bones have sufficient material in them, they will look at chemical composition to understand the diet of the animal."

Scientists will clean the mammoth bones to prepare them for display at UC Merced's library by spring 2014, Aldenderfer said.

"What we want to do with this display is give people a sense of what it was like to live in the valley at least 10,000 years ago," Aldenderfer said. He estimated the bones to be between 10,000 and 35,000 years old.

A number of smaller fossils, including ribs from the other animals, were moved to Castle two weeks ago, he said. They will be analyzed and possibly put on display, depending on their condition.

Angela DaPrato, Caltrans spokeswoman, said the agency entered into a permanent loan agreement with UC Merced to receive the fossils for research and display.

"Since we found the bones in Merced County, we wanted to keep them in the valley for local people to learn about and see," DaPrato said. "It's also an opportunity for students and faculty members to learn more about our history through the research."

DaPrato said Caltrans prepares for fossil discoveries by having a paleontologist on site whenever they dig more than 5 feet deep or at certain project sites.

The Highway 99-Arboleda Drive Project, which builds a new interchange and extends the freeway from four lanes to six, broke ground on July 13, 2012. The project is slated to end in June 2015.

"There's always a chance of more discoveries, and that's why we have paleontologists on site," DaPrato said.

Construction work is not delayed when discoveries are made, DaPrato said. Work is stopped from that area and moved to a different part of the project.

Another artifact discovery was made in Merced two months ago, DaPrato said, during work on the $118.7 million Plainsburg Road Freeway Project.

It's too soon to identify what species those remains belonged to, she said, but paleontologists are working on identifying and documenting them.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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