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Waking the Baby Mammoth Facts

From the baby mammoth's tusks and teeth, scientists will be able to confirm Lyuba's age, the season of her death, and the environmental conditions for the herd in Yamal. Lyuba, a baby mammoth was discovered on the bank of a remote Siberian river in May 2007. Thousands of years after her species became extinct, she is in amazing condition and unlike any other animal ever dug out of the frozen earth.

From the baby mammoth's tusks and teeth, scientists will be able to confirm Lyuba's age, the season of her death, and the environmental conditions for the herd in Yamal. Lyuba, a baby mammoth was discovered on the bank of a remote Siberian river in May 2007. Thousands of years after her species became extinct, she is in amazing condition and unlike any other animal ever dug out of the frozen earth. (View larger version)

Photograph by Francis Latreille

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  • Lyuba is the best-preserved and most complete mammoth – adult or calf – ever found.

  • Lyuba was discovered in May 2007 by Nenets reindeer herder Yuri Khudi. In recognition of the discovery, Russian authorities named the baby female mammoth after Yuri's wife Lyuba.

  • Baby Lyuba lived roughly 40,000 years ago. This was determined by radiocarbon dating of samples of Lyuba's tissues.

  • The Nenets population of Yamal lives far north of the Arctic Circle and numbers about 35,000 people. The group is divided into nomads who migrate, and others who live a more "stationary" lifestyle in settlements across the tundra. Among the nomads are "private" individuals such as herder Yuri Khudi, who work independently with their families, and others who work for state cooperatives.

  • The Yamal Peninsula, where Lyuba was found, projects northward into the Arctic Ocean. "Yamal" means "edge of the land" in the Nenets language.

  • The Nenets are animists, who believe that everything in nature has a soul. They also have faith in an active spirit world: invisible gods of light (the world above ground) and darkness (the underground world of the dead). When creatures from the world of the dead – such as a baby mammoth – surface, traditional Nenets consider it a bad omen.

  • According to Nenets spiritual beliefs, there exists a parallel world populated by the "Sikhirtia" – a people that resemble humans but live underground. Just like the Nenets, they are said to be herders -- but herders of mammoths, not reindeer. Some Nenets may consider Lyuba to be a baby "underground reindeer" of the Sikhirtia people, who was either lost, or escaped to the world of the living.

  • Salekhard, the city in Yamal that now has custodianship of Baby Lyuba, is a vital supplier of natural gas to Russia and one of Siberia's wealthiest and most modern cities.

  • More than two-dozen mammal species live on Yamal, including caribou, wild reindeer, brown bear and Arctic fox. Polar bears are seen only infrequently.

  • Summers are short and cold – winters windy and freezing. Ice forms in the coastal waters of Yamal in the second part of October. The ice breakup begins at the end of May or beginning of June. The average annual temperature is below freezing.

  • Some woolly mammoths migrated east from Siberia across the Bering Land Bridge into Alaska and North America. Eventually, some of the North American mammoths migrated back into Siberia, where they survived long after native Siberian mammoths went extinct.

  • Permafrost is the permanently frozen ground of Arctic regions. Summers are so short that there are times when only the top foot or so (about 30 cm) of soil thaws. The winters are so cold that frozen conditions can extend thousands of feet into the subsurface.

  • Many Siberian rivers freeze solid during the winter. Their discharge (amount of freshwater produced) has enormous seasonal variation, reaching its peak in dramatic early spring floods.

  • The woolly mammoth began to die out approximately 10,000 years ago. Some scientists believe that a small population of mammoths survived on Wrangel Island in Russia until about 3,000 years ago.

  • Scientists have been studying mammoths for roughly 300 years. One of the first relatively well preserved woolly mammoths was found in Siberia by Mikhail Ivanovich Adams.

  • While complete mammoth carcasses like Lyuba are rare, tusks, bones and other remains are frequently encountered on the Siberian tundra.

  • In 2007, Russians exported 40 tons of mammoth ivory, the only type of ivory legally imported into the United States.

  • Like the rings of a tree, Lyuba's teeth (milk tusk and premolars) provide a record of her development throughout more than 1.5 years (from a total gestation period that was probably about 22 months, as in elephants) in her mother's womb. This is the most information yet recovered about prenatal development in mammoths.

  • CT-scanning, such as was done on Lyuba, is an extension of older procedures based on conventional x-rays. Computer processing of x-ray "images" taken from many different directions allow radiologists to generate detailed 3D models of the original anatomy.

  • An x-ray image is akin to a photographic "negative". Areas in the body that are least dense absorb little x-ray energy, allowing most of it to pass through, darkening the film. Areas that are most dense, such as bones and teeth, block most of the energy, leaving a white shape on the film.

  • The fat hump on Lyuba's neck, being less dense than surrounding muscle tissue and bone, showed up clearly on the CT models of Lyuba's anatomy.

  • Lyuba is well preserved partly because she spent most of the last 40,000 years in the permafrost, where the extreme cold prevented bacterial decay, and partly because of a postmortem "pickling" process that made her tissues relatively acidic. Because of this pickling, even after she was first exposed by erosion, she did not attract most scavengers or bacterial decomposers.

  • Baby mammoths may have normally nursed from their mothers for about five years.

  • Elephant milk is rich in lipids (fats) providing a calorie-dense food supply for a baby that has to grow rapidly to keep up with its mother and limit its vulnerability to predators. For mammoth calves, these problems were compounded by the need to grow fast enough to achieve sufficient size to survive their first winter.

  • In each part of a mammoth's mouth – upper and lower, left and right – a series of six chewing teeth erupts (and is later worn away and lost) sequentially throughout life.

  • A mammoth's last tooth, equivalent to one of our wisdom teeth, weighs about 15 pounds (6.8 kg), almost 1500 times the weight of its first chewing tooth, equivalent to one of our bicuspids.

  • The "underwool" of a woolly mammoth has a pattern of fine waviness that resembles the finest sheep's wool. This helps to trap air and reduce loss of body heat to the frigid winds of the Siberian winter.

  • Although mammoth's have five digits on each of their fore and hind feet, they have only three external nails on each extremity.

  • A mammoth's front feet have an almost circular outline, but its hind feet are elliptical, or oval, in outline.

  • A mammoth's trunk has two separate nasal passages extending throughout its entire length.

  • A mammoth's trunk attaches to the skull on its forehead, making an opening in the skull that looks like a place for a large, centrally placed eye. Ancient Greeks observed this structure on skulls of Mediterranean-area elephants and mammoth-relatives … and came up with the legend of the Cyclops.

  • As elephants do today, mammoths probably called to one another using low-frequency rumbles that traveled for miles (kilometers), in addition to their higher frequency trumpeting sounds.

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