Wooly mammoth carcass from Siberia reveals information about ice-age creatures

Scientists perform an autopsy and DNA analysis on a month-old woolly mammoth found by Siberian reindeer herders in 2007.
Scientists perform an autopsy and DNA analysis on a month-old woolly mammoth found by Siberian reindeer herders in 2007. (Ria Novosti/getty Images)
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By William Mullen
Tuesday, March 9, 2010

For 42,000 years, Lyuba, a baby woolly mammoth, was preserved almost perfectly intact, right down to her baby fat, in frigid Siberian river muck. Now released from her icy grave, she is being preserved in much the same manner as another famous Russian relic: the body of revolutionary Vladimir Lenin. It is a process called desiccation, removing all moisture from the body tissues.

Only Lyuba's hair and toenails were missing when reindeer herders found her carcass in 2007, washed out from the permafrost along Yuribey River in Siberia. Since then, her body, tiny tusks, internal organs and even the contents of her stomach have been a wellspring of scientific insight into mammoths and life in the ice ages.

"There is no question at this point it is the best-preserved, most complete wooly mammoth specimen ever found," said Daniel Fisher, a mastodon and mammoth expert at the University of Michigan and one of the first scientists to examine Lyuba.

From her tiny tusks and teeth, Fisher concluded that Lyuba was only a month old when she apparently fell into a quicksandlike riverbank and suffocated as she sucked mud into her mouth and trunk while frantically trying to free herself.

Soon covered completely, she was preserved by the cold, lack of oxygen and a type of bacteria that colonized her flesh, making it slightly acidic. The bacteria, Fisher said, might have acted as a preservative and given her flesh a foul odor and taste that discouraged wildlife from eating the remains when her carcass popped out of the permafrost and began thawing.

The bones of animals from the same period show up with some frequency, but Fisher said "we never or almost never get soft tissues" -- skin and internal organs. "What we see in Lyuba is barely different in chemistry from tissue in a living animal," he added.

Even her intestinal contents were preserved, helping confirm the diets of ice age mammoths. In Lyuba's case, they also found traces of adult feces, indicating that mammoth babies, like modern elephants, ate their mother's excrement as a source of bacteria they need for proper digestion.

Teams of Russian and international scientists have looked at Lyuba through CT scans and X-rays and have taken portions of her skin, bone, teeth and vital organs for study. Because she quickly captured the hearts of Russians, keeping Lyuba for posterity became a priority for Russian authorities.

Falling back on preservation methods they feel comfortable with, Fisher said, the Russians chose to use a method he believes is similar to what has been used to preserve Lenin's body since his death in 1924. His body lies in a tomb in Moscow's Red Square.

"She was submerged in ethanol and an antifungal agent, methylparaben," said Tom Skwerski, an exhibit project manager for Chicago's Field Museum. "Ethanol permeates all tissues and dries faster than water. Then she was submerged in a solution of formalin, a formaldehyde-based product, and ethanol, and dried through evaporation until all moisture content in her tissue is gone and she is mummified.

"She no longer has to be kept frozen, which can also damage her tissue, but is kept in a climate-controlled case kept at 70 degrees and 50 percent relative humidity."

Lyuba can be seen at the Field Museum in a traveling exhibit, curated by Fisher, called "Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age." Information about the exhibit, and photos from it, can be viewed at http://www.fieldmuseum.org/exhibits/traveling_mammoths.htm.

-- Chicago Tribune

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