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Raising the Mammoth

mammoths More detailed information about mammoths

Herewith an article on a frozen mammoth, from the excellent Australian magazine The Bulletin.

A two hour documentary of the find and exhumation was screened on cable television's Discovery Channel in a rare global prime-time screening of Raising the Mammoth on March 12 2000 in 146 countries (including Australia) and 23 languages.

I presume water was used to reglue the mammoth tusks into their sockets. A glue is something which wets both surfaces and then hardens. You can make quite a serviceable shelter in freezing temperatures using nothing but water to wet the surfaces to be glued, then allowing the joint to freeze.

But be wary of sudden spring thaws.

The Bulletin, February 8, 2000

..............despite enduring many prior severe climate changes, when the last ice age ended about 12,000 years ago most of those beasts were either already dead or doomed. The wiping out of megafauna was not restricted to Siberia: scores of species in Australia, North America, Europe and Asia cashed in their chips about the same time. It was devastating.

Species that had existed for millions of years and ranged over much of the globe simply vanished in the geological equivalent of the blink of an eye. is still unclear exactly why they perished and is debated vigorously in scientific circles - humans are on the scene with no alibi, heavily implicated through hunting and causing habitat change - but now an extraordinary window into that ancient world is set to open because of the determined efforts of a French adventurer, Bernard Buiges.

Buiges has managed to recover virtually the entire body of a woolly mammoth, which had lain snap-frozen for millennia in, the Siberian permafrost. Carbon dating suggests it died more than 20,000 Years ago: it was a male aged 46, tests have revealed.

Plenty of mammoth remains have been found before. In 1996, for example, Mexican construction workers found the skeletons of an entire herd of seven animals, buried 12,500 years ago in volcanic ash and mud. Other frozen mammoth bodies have also been found in Siberia and elsewhere.

But the body found by Buiges seems so well preserved that it promises to be a special find. Seeds, pollen and other plant parts may still cling to its coat; the remains of its last meals may be present in its stomach; its teeth, tusks, muscles and what may be some of the oldest mammoth blood cells ever studied will all have stones to tell about its life and times.

What's more, it's the first to emerge from the deep freeze into the clone age.

Already the tantalising possibility has been raised that the latest reproductive technologies may be used to breathe new life into this charismatic beast. It is hoped the cloning techniques being developed by Scottish and other scientists - as demonstrated spectacularly by the now famous sheep Dolly - can be adapted for use in this situation, probably using an Asian elephant as the surrogate mother. Either a cell from the mammoth's body, or perhaps an intact sperm, would yield the genetic blueprint.

To do so would be a major technical feat if nothing else, not least because elephants are notoriously difficult to breed. But if it succeeded, a live mammoth would walk the Earth for the first time in thousands of years.

The very word mammoth has become a fixed part of our collective imagination, used to indicate something huge or gigantic. The truth is, however, that mammoths were no larger than the Asian elephant, and a little smaller than the African elephant.

Yet they were impressive animals. Based on elephant studies, it's thought that a fullgrown adult mammoth stood up to three metres tall at the shoulder. it would have eaten up to 200 kilograms of food and needed more than 180 litres of water a day, having to forage for at least 14 hours simply to sustain itself. Some of the largest weighed up to 8 tonnes.

Mammoth tusks are unusual not simply for their size but for their shape and the way they are arranged, pointing downward, and, in older animals, curling back around on themselves almost full circle. it has been suggested they served as snowploughs, clearing the way for the animals to reach the plants they sought: they are known to have eaten grasses, buttercups, mosses and even lichens.

And as extinct prehistoric animals go, woolly mammoths seem to run second only to dinosaurs for public interest. Dinosaurs were wiped out 60 million years before humans even began to evolve, whereas people and mammoths co-existed for many tens of thousands of years.

Over time, many mammoth species existed, inhabiting every continent but Australia, South America and Antarctica, notes Colin Groves, a reader in biological anthropology at the Australian National University and an expert in human and mammal evolution.

Groves has a special interest in elephant evolution. He says the ancestors of elephants first appeared about 5 million years ago in Africa, the same time our own ancestors diverged from the chimpanzees. Asian elephants first evolved about I million years later, and genetic studies have shown mammoths emerged from that branch of the family line.

They later diversified, evolving into many species and even becoming dwarfed when trapped by rising seas on small islands. The last known living mammoths, a dwarf species living on Wrangel Island, off Siberia, died out only 3,700 years ago.

The woolly mammoth seems to have been superbly adapted to cold climates, with its thick coat and dense fatty layers of insulation. There is no question that people hunted and ate them. Frozen and fossilised caches of mammoth meat have been found, while stone-pointed spears and other thrusting weapons tough enough to pierce their thick hides have been discovered within mammoth skeletons in North America. In Russia, archaeologists have found large and elaborate houses built up to 28,000 years ago and constructed entirely from hundreds of mammoth bones.

The suggestion of cloning a mammoth - first put forward last year by Japanese scientists - raises many issues for public debate and throws a whole new light on this latest find. Buiges has spent a decade organising treks and tours to the Arctic and Siberia. It was on one of these in 1998 that he heard that members of the Dolgan tribe - indigenous Siberian nomadic hunters and reindeer herders - had some very special ivory for sale.

His curiosity led him to the Jarkov family, and to Buiges' amazement their ivory turned out to be a pair of tusks from a woolly mammoth. Some of the Jarkov men had found the tusks sticking out of the permafrost a year earlier.

They had found mammoth bones and teeth before, but these tusks were of high quality. They were from a mature animal, were in very good condition and weighed about 100 kg. With ivory fetching $US200/kg ($A306/kg) on the local market, the canny Jarkovs were not about to rush into selling them to the first buyer.

"To them it was a great treasure," Buiges recalls from his Paris home. "It took months and months to make the deal with them to sell."

Buiges became more and more interested in the scientific and educational potential of the discovery: the Jarkovs told him more of the animal's body appeared to be frozen in the permafrost: "I'm no specialist in ivory, but I had seen mammoth tusks in a museum before and I was completely fascinated by seeing these. I had to find out more about them. It is not rational but I became completely passionate about it."

Eventually the sale was clinched for $US20,000, plus a Skidoo and a swag of other practical items. In return, Buiges made it a condition of sale that the Jarkovs take him to the site where they found the tusks, 300 Km north of the town of Khatanga.

He could see that the animal's head had begun to decay through exposure to air. Digging around it he came across thick hair, skin and then well-preserved mammoth flesh. Excited, he organised for ground-penetrating radar tests, which suggested that most of the mammoth remained intact in the ice.

That was when he decided he would try to have the entire body removed in one piece: "This is the first time such an extraction has taken place. Frozen mammoths have been found in the tundra before but they have been thawed out by hosing them with water. That causes damage to the body and the material surrounding it. I wanted to be able to defrost it slowly under controlled conditions."

His idea won the immediate support of scientists but a fruitless search for sponsors- Siberia is not exactly attractive to foreign companies - led Bulges to bear most of the cost himself. Cable television's Discovery Channel put in the rest of the money to make a two-hour documentary of the exercise. Such is the channel's belief in the public interest in the project, it plans a rare global prime-time screening of Raising the mammoth on March 12 in 146 countries (including Australia) and 23 languages.

Last northern summer, Bulges led an expedition involving more than 20 people and heavy equipment to extract the mammoth. It was tough and awkward work, with many days lost to howling blizzards.

At one point, Bulges became impatient with sitting in his tent for days on end during a spell of bad weather. He erected a small tent atop the mammoth and spent many hours defrosting a small area beneath him with a hair dryer. it was enough to reveal tufts of the animal's reddish hair, which could grow up to 50 centimetres long.

But it also revealed something unexpected: "This was the most fascinating part of the whole thing for me. As I revealed more of the body, I could begin to smell the mammoth. It was like the smell of an elephant: it's hard to describe ... strong but not disgusting. Imagine! Being able to smell an extinct animal and run your fingers through its hair. it was really something-"

Eventually, the team was able to use jackhammers to dig a trench around the body, insert steel beams beneath it, blast it free of the permafrost, then weld the beams and their supports together to create a platform on which sat a large dark cube of frozen mammoth and dirt.

It was this unromantic vision that persuaded Bulges to bring back the mammoth's tusks and replace them in their sockets in the animal's skull. He has been criticised for doing so: he concedes it was hardly scientific procedure but argues plausibly that it created a more aweinspiring sight for the cameras and would help spark greater public interest.

Last October, with winter threatening, a powerful helicopter was called in to airlift the 21-tonne block to Khatanga- Bulges shook with excitement and cold: the chopper's blades whipped up a mini-blizzard as it strained to lift the block, the tusks protruding from it.

The mammoth remains frozen in its block in an ice cave near Khatanga airport. in April, scientists plan to begin work in earnest on a gentle hot-air defrosting process. Genuine experts are involved, including Dutch paleontologist Dick Mot and American geologist and paleontologist Larry Agenbroad.

Says Archer: "There's no question in My mind that humans are implicated in the extinction of the mammoths and many of the other megafauna. Yet the tundra is still there and is suitable habitat."

Mammoth genome partially mapped


Dec. 20, 2005 - In a world first, German scientists say they have reconstructed a key sequence in the genome of the woolly mammoth, enabling them to show that the extinct beast's closest modern relative is the Asian elephant.

Reporting online Sunday in Nature, the British science journal, the researchers say they devised a new technique for the feat, teasing out DNA from just 200 milligrams (0.007 of an ounce) of bone found at a mammoths' graveyard in the Siberian permafrost. Their technique, called multiplex polymerase chain reaction, copied 46 chunks of sequence, which were rearranged to give a picture of the creature's mitochondrial DNA. The mitochondria are an internal part of a cell that is the cell's power supply. Mitochondrial DNA is handed down through the maternal line, and is a relatively stable genetic sequence - it changes little from generation to generation, and at a measurable rhythm.

This makes mitochondrial DNA a useful "molecular clock" that can be wound backward into time, to see how a species evolved. By comparing the sequence with that of modern animals, scientists can spot when and where species diverged from their common ancestor. In this case, the closest relative today to Mammuthus primigenius is the Asian elephant rather than the African elephant, the researchers said. The difference, though, is not great. African elephants branched away from the mammoth's evolutionary tree around six million years ago. Asian elephants followed suit around only 440,000 years later.

That timeline of divergence is intriguingly close to that of gorillas, chimps and humans in how they branched out from the primates' family tree. The mammoth team was led by Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig. Previous efforts to recover pre-Ice Age species have run into the predictable problem of retrieving material that has not rotted after 10,000 years or more in the permafrost. Until now, little more than 1,000 base pairs - the "letters" on the DNA code which make up the chemical recipe for making and sustaining life - have been coaxed out of these frozen samples. The previous maximum was 1,600 base pairs.

But by using their new approach to gently amplify the ancient DNA, Hofreiter's team were able to get 5,000 base pairs, even though their sample, too, was degraded. Woolly mammoths once roamed far and wide across the northern reaches of Eurasia and North America, but no trace of them survives beyond the end of the last Ice Age, some 11,000 years ago. Their heavy layers of fat, their long brown top hair and thick woolly undercoat were superb for bitter cold but left them ill-equipped for a warmer climate and the rise of Homo sapiens. They are among the best-researched animals of the Ice Age, thanks to the preservation of carcasses in frozen ground and the pictures of the creatures drawn by Stone Age artists in European caves. The bone used in the latest research came from the banks of the Berelekh River in Yakutia, where thousands of bones, belonging to some 160 mammoths, have been recovered.

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