Construction crews have uncovered the skeleton of a fossilized mammoth believed to be older than the ancient beasts found at the La Brea...

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LOS ANGELES — Construction crews have uncovered the skeleton of a fossilized mammoth believed to be older than the ancient beasts found at the La Brea Tar Pits.

Larry Agenbroad, one of the nation’s foremost mammoth experts, called the find “spectacular,” especially if, as he suspects, it turns out to be of the rare meridionalis species.

“We don’t find a lot of them,” Agenbroad said. “And to find one complete is even rarer.”

An on-site paleontologist spotted small fragments of bones March 29 during grading for a 265-home development in the northern foothills of Moorpark. He determined the next morning that it was a mammoth fossil, officials said.

Paleo Environmental Associates of Altadena was called in April 1 to begin digging the skeleton out, a task that should wrap up today, said Bruce Lander, a partner in the firm. A team of as many as eight paleontologists has been working at the site since the discovery.

Based on sedimentation surrounding its grave, Lander pegged the mammoth’s age at between 400,000 and 1.8 million years old. If that proves correct, the beast could be an ancestor of the Columbian mammoths discovered at La Brea Tar Pits, which are no older than 150,000 years, Agenbroad said.

Agenbroad, lead researcher at the Hot Springs Mammoth Site in South Dakota, said he also suspects the beast may be of the meridionalis species because of its apparent age. Growing to 14 feet and weighing as much as 10 tons, meridionalis was the first mammoth to reach this continent, about 1.7 million years ago.

But John Harris, curator of the Page Museum at La Brea Tar pits, pointed out that the older mammoth species never has been found in coastal California.

The only remains uncovered in Southern California were at Anza Borrego State Park near the Salton Sea, Harris said.

“I suspect what you have there is a Columbian mammoth,” Harris said. “That is the common mammoth that you find in California.”

It will take as long as a year to clean and prepare the fossils for further study, but the age may be determined sooner, said Trevor Lindsey of Ecological Sciences in Santa Paula, who first spotted the bones.

Workers also will take about 3,000 cubic yards of dirt surrounding the fossils to the lab to screen for additional bones, such as the teeth or bones of rodents, which evolve faster and are helpful to archeologists trying to date a find.

Mark Roeder, a partner of Lander’s company working at the dig, speculated that the creature died near an ancient stream or possibly drowned and that its skeleton soon was covered in a flood, which explains why so much of it was preserved.

“This one’s really rare, because it’s fairly complete,” Roeder said. “When you get one like this, it’s exciting. You don’t mind putting in the long hours.”

Close relatives of the Asian elephant, mammoths roamed Africa as long ago as 55 million years. They grazed on grasses, shrubs and even small trees, ranging into Europe and Siberia before crossing an ancient land bridge into North America.

Woolly mammoths, best known for their shaggy fur coat, came later and were smaller than their earlier cousins. The last of the mammoths died out about 11,000 years ago, experts say.