Wednesday, 10 October 2012

A Mammoth Discovery

The Siberian mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was one of the most widespread and succesful creatures at the end of the last Ice Age. They were perfectly adapted to their cold and harsh home, with small ears to reduce heat loss, thick, tough insulating fur, large feet to stop them from sinking into drifts of snow and finally a prehensile trunk and powerful molars to enable them to feed on anything which they could pry from the ice.

The 20,00 to 30,000 year old corpse of  Jenya (Mammuthus primigenius)
from the Sopochnaya Karga Cape, Russia
The only reason why they became extinct was due to the invasion of their homeland by our species. Our ancestors killed them, for their skins, bones and meat. This is how they survived the frozen north. Museums across the world have, in their collections, the remains of clothes, tools and huts from mammoths. Yet the preserved fragments of these ancient beasts are far more common.

The ice was the perfect medium for preserving, desiccating and burying the corpses quickly, thus preventing them from being damaged by predators. Palaeontologists estimate that there are more than 1.5 million specimens still trapped within Siberian permafrost alone, based on the rate of discovery and the thickness of the ice. Most of these fossils will be fragmentary, single isolated bones, scraps of hair and, in less common instances, an articulated limb or skull.

On very rare occasions, however, far more complete specimens are unearthed. One such creature, hauled from the ice in 1901, was of an adult with every bone present and correct alongside its skin, hair and tusks. One of the most well known is of Lyuba with near perfect preservation down to the cellular level. Now another incredibly complete carcass has been discovered near the Sopochnaya Karga Cape, 3,500 kilometres north of Moscow.

The frozen remains were unearthed by an 11 year old boy in late September. He subsequently contacted the local experts and the mammoth was handed over to Professor Alexei Tikhonov from the Zoology Institute in St Petersburg. A study of the bones revealed that the creature, named Jenya after its discoverer, was 16 years old when he died. Further analysis showed that he would have weighed around 500 kilograms and was 2 metres tall, making him actually quite small for his age.

The head of Jenya, showing the missing tusk
However what made Jenya interesting was the story which he told. Cave paintings and fossil evidence show that mammoths stored large amounts of fat in humps on their back for the winter months. The humps on Jenya's back were quite large, showing that he died during the summer. Obviously, the mammoth had not died from the cold or starvation. Instead, the biggest clue as to the nature of his death was a large split running down the centre of the right tusk and the fact that the left was missing altogether.

Unable to defend himself on the Siberian swamps and marshes of his home some 20,000 to 30,000 years ago, he was attacked and killed. The fact that the tusk was missing suggests that humans were involved but the completeness of the corpse and the lack of any other marks, such as from tools, suggests otherwise.

Mammoths are among some of the most mysterious creatures on the planet, While we know almost everything about them, from their anatomy to their genetic make-up, each piece of new information creates a part of the overall picture which we do not understand. Yet this all may change. Scientists have decoded around 85% of the mammoth genome, raising distinct possibilities that they could be resurrected with some genetic manipulation.

Mammoths only died out recently. While the woolly mammoths of Europe became extinct around 10,000 years ago, small dwarf populations existed on Wrangell Island off the coast of the Americas until just 3000 years ago, when Alexander the Great was carving his name into history during his conquests in Asia. While we are close, for the present the mammoth remains just outside of human memory. A time when the cycle of winter and summer ruled the lives of early humans, and the only records for that dark time are feint imprints painted on cave walls or carved onto bones.