In May 2013, a team of international scientists unearthed the remains of a mammoth in the furthest reaches of northern Siberia.
This discovery of a mammoth with the best preserved flesh yet (three legs, most of the body, some of the head and even the trunk survived in extraordinary condition) has quickened the pace of one of the most ambitious and controversial projects in science – the cloning of the woolly mammoth. This one is unlike any mammoth found before; when it was dug out of the permafrost, a dark red liquid oozed from the frozen body. Speculation is rife – could the liquid be mammoth blood? And, controversially, does the freshness of the mammoth’s flesh mean that a clone is now achievable?
The autopsy of the animal (nicknamed ‘Buttercup’ by the team) and analysis of its tusks reveal the life story of this mammoth in forensic detail. Part of the autopsy team was Dr Tori Herridge from London’s Natural History Museum; a palaeobiologist, she possesses an in-depth knowledge of mammoth anatomy.
- Carbon dating of the mammoth’s flesh revealed that she walked the earth 40,000 years ago.
- Discovering the presence of haemoglobin confirmed that the dark red liquid is definitely blood.
- The mammoth was female and analysis of her tusks indicates approximately eight successful calving events and one calf lost. Females grew their tusks once they got into their calf-bearing years, at rates that were very much dependent on where they were in a calving cycle. Tusks grew more slowly when a female mammoth was pregnant and lactating.
- From her teeth, Dr Herridge was also able to estimate that the mammoth was in its fifties when it died. Mammoths and elephants have similar teeth and through their lives the molars are replaced six times. When the last set wears out, they starve and die. Dr Herridge’s examination of the teeth revealed dental abnormalities, indicating that she wasn’t able to chew her food correctly, which may explain gobstopper-sized stones found in the gut.
- Despite their reputation for being enormous, this mammoth was not much larger than an Asian elephant.
- She met her end by becoming trapped in a peat bog and being eaten alive by predators from the rear end.
These new findings will be revealed for the first time in a Channel 4 documentary to be screened on Sunday 23 November (Woolly Mammoth – The Autopsy, 8pm). Alongside this compelling insight into the life of a Siberian mammoth 40,000 years ago, the programme enjoys exclusive access to the leading mammoth de-extinction programmes happening right now in the United States and South Korea.
Dr Tori Herridge, palaeobiologist at the Natural History Museum, says: “As a palaeontologist, you normally have to imagine the extinct animals you work on. So actually coming face-to-face with a mammoth in the flesh, and being up to my elbows in slippery, wet, and –frankly- rather smelly mammoth liver, counts as one of the most incredible experiences of my life. It’s up there with my wedding day. The information gleaned from Buttercup’s autopsy about her life and death, and the future discoveries that will come from analyses of her muscles and internal organs, will add to our understanding of these magnificent Ice Age beasts.”
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