Page last updated at 16:42 GMT, Sunday, 7 September 2008 17:42 UK

Mammoth skull raised from ground

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News

Mammoth skull moved to truck (Lacombat/Mol)
The team used a crane to move the skull on to a truck

Palaeontologists working in southern France have used a crane to lift a "rare" mammoth skull out of the ground.

The 600kg fossil has lain in the earth near Saint Paulien, in the volcanic Auvergne region, for some 400,000 years, scientists estimate.

Researchers had to protect the fossil with a plaster jacket before lifting it with the crane and putting it on the back of a truck.

The species is described as a "missing link" in mammoth evolution.

The skull has now been moved to Crozatier Museum in nearby Le Puy-en-Velay.

Frederic Lacombat, from Crozatier, and Dick Mol, from the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, began excavating the fossil cranium on 15 August.

Large specimen

They will begin their scientific investigation of the find, described as "extremely rare", this coming week.

The researchers also think this could turn out to be one of the best preserved specimens ever found.

Frederic Lacombat and Dick Mol work on the skull (Lacombat/Mol)
The skull was encased in sediment and lying on volcanic rock

Only a handful of skeletons of steppe mammoth exist; and in these surviving specimens, the skull is rarely intact.

It belonged to a male steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) that stood about 3.7m (12ft) tall and lived during Middle Pleistocene times.

M. trogontherii represents the transitional phase between an even earlier species known as the southern mammoth and the more recent woolly mammoth.

However, comparatively little is known about the Middle Pleistocene period, which lasted from 800,000 to 120,000 years ago.

Localities from this period are few and far-between; many of the sediments are badly eroded.

'Missing link'

The southern mammoth appears to have lived in a savannah environment, and was probably a "browser", feeding on trees and shrubs.

Mammoth molars (Lacombat/Mol)
Southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) - lived from 2.6 million years ago to 800,000 years ago, during the Early Pleistocene
Steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) - lived from 800,000 years ago to 300,000 years ago, during the Middle Pleistocene
Woolly mammoth ( Mammuthus primigenius) - lived from 300,000 years ago to 4,000 years ago, during the Late Pleistocene and Holocene

However, the molar teeth of steppe mammoth and the later woolly mammoth show that these animals had 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.

Study of the skull could help shed light on competing models of how and where these beasts evolved.

The researchers also say that understanding mammoth evolution could inform elephant conservation today.

"We protect elephants in Africa, but we put them in parks," Mr Mol told BBC News.

"If we look at climate change and at the fossil history of the mammoth, we know elephants are migratory animals. As soon as an African elephant comes out of the park and runs through a village, people will kill the animal.

"Elephants can travel 80km a night. If the climate is changing, and I accept that it is, then elephants will want to move. In time, they will want to move into Eurasia, as many species did in the past."

In 2010, the skull will be displayed in an exhibition on the fossil elephants, which once roamed across Eurasia and America.

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