Digging up the Ice Age in Stockton

STOCKTON -- It's hard to imagine, but it really did happen -- woolly mammoths roamed the Central Valley.

Maybe the difficulty comes from the elephantlike creatures being associated with the Ice Age's frigid temperatures, or maybe because they were alive 2.5 million to 10,000 years ago.

But crews building a $110 million San Joaquin County administration office in downtown Stockton came across the bones of a woolly mammoth Wednesday after drilling 80 feet. Construction at the site at San Joaquin Street and Weber Avenue will continue, but scientists are reveling in the find, noting that it's not the first time dinosaur or mammoth remnants have been discovered in the Central Valley.

"It's not unheard of, but it's still amazing," said Greg Anderson, assistant professor of biology at the University of the Pacific. He helped identify the bones. "Woolly mammoths and saber-tooth tigers used to walk around the Central Valley. You've heard of 'Ice Age' the movie. I tell my students this is what we had."

After finding the bones, construction workers called the county coroner, thinking they were human, Anderson said.

Dinosaurs were suspected when one of the femur bones stood taller than the coroner, he said.

Known for their long noses and tusks, mammoths were mammals, not reptilian dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are estimated to have lived 230 million to 65 million years ago, and were extinct before mammoths strolled the Earth.

Originated in Africa?

Scientists hypothesize mammoths died out because of a warming climate and overhunting by humans. Mammoths originated in Africa, moved into Asia and Europe, then made their way to western North America through a land bridge from Asia, scientists believe.

Researchers from the Uni- versity of California Museum of Paleontology in Berkeley will study the bones.

Richard Hilton, a geology instructor at Sierra College in Rocklin who studies dinosaurs and other reptiles in California, said two mammoth tusks were discovered in the Modesto landfill in the late 1970s.

"The bones aren't rare, but it's rare that we dig into the valley. We're usually building up," Hilton said.

Still, stumbling upon bones doesn't happen often.

"Think of the odds of them even being preserved in the first place," UOP's Anderson said. "... They have to die at the right time at the right place."

Bee staff writer Michelle Hatfield can be reached at mhatfield@modbee.com or 578-2339.