In “Ice Baby” by Tom Mueller, the May 2009 issue of National Geographic announces the recent discovery of a 40,000 year old baby mammoth in Sibera. She is called Lyuba, named after the wife of the Nenet reindeer herder who found her, and is in near-pristine condition, having even her eyelashes. In fact, besides most of her wooly coat being gone, the only pieces missing (part of her tail and right ear) were destroyed after her recovery. Even so, she is undoubtedly the most complete specimen of mammoth to date.
Of course, paleontologists such as Dan Fisher, who has spent his entire life studying Pleistocene mammoths and mastodons, are excited by this find because Lyuba provides the most complete set of data it is possible to obtain, and all from one animal. Before, Fisher and his colleagues had been forced to infer certain states of health from fossils (primarily teeth) by comparing against similar findings in the mammoth’s closest relative, the elephant. But Lyuba was so well-preserved that Fisher was able to scan her, take tissue samples, and even retrieve stomach contents.
A three-day autopsy, during which Lyuba was allowed to partially thaw to facilitate more invasive procedures, indicated that Lyuba was a well-fed one-month old mammoth at the time of her death, indicating that death was accidental. Supporting these findings was a dense mix of clay and sand in her mouth and throat, which she likely inhaled after falling into riverbank mud, leading to suffocation, but also the probable cause of her excellent preservation. Dense mud would have sealed out oxygen and prevented aerobic microbes from decomposing her soft tissue, and then lactic acid-producing microbes colonized her tissues, effectively “pickling” her carcass. Later, the ground turned to permafrost, freezing her as well.
Following Lyuba’s article in National Geographic is another article entitled “Recipe for a Resurrection” (also by Tom Mueller), which discusses the possibilities for cloning extinct species such as mammoths and Tasmanian tigers. Pointing to the recent success of Teruhiko Wakayama’s team in cloning mice that had been frozen for 16 years, and the recent publishing of 70 percent of the mammoth genome by a team led by Webb Miller and Stephan C. Schuster, the article details the hurdles that still remain in accomplishing this long hoped-for feat.
Oddly enough, though cloning offers no hope of bringing back the same individual organism, the article ends with a pro-death quote from Tom Gilbert, “an expert in ancient DNA at Copenhagen University who with Schuster and Webb pioneered the harvesting of mammoth DNA from hair,” who “questions both the utility and wisdom of cloning extinct species. — ‘If you can do a mammoth, you can do anything else that’s dead, including your grandmother. But in a world in global warming and with limited resources for research, do you really want to bring back your dead grandmother?'”
The Field Museum in Chicago is planning an exhibition tour starring Lyuba in 2010, with assistance from the National Geographic Society.
Watch Waking the Baby Mammoth on National Geographic throughout the month of May (next airing May 6).