Sunday, July 15, 2007

They almost could have been playmates

Sometime in the near future, Lyuba will join Dima at the Zoological Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. She weighs 110 pounds, measures 33 inches high and 51 inches long, roughly the size of a small dog and lived approximately the same time as Dima, a young male.

Both baby mammoths lived approximately 40,000 to 10,000 years ago until their discoveries in the Russian permafrost. Lyuba is estimated to be six months old and has been named after the wife of Yuri Khudi, a reindeer hunter and breeder who discovered her peeking through the snow in Russia's Arctic Yamalo-Nenetsk region in May 2007.

"It's a lovely little mammoth indeed, found in perfect condition," stated Alexei Tikhonov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Science's Zoological Institute.

When Khudi realized that he had found a mammoth instead of a dead reindeer, scientists were called and she was transported to the regional capital of Salekhard. She is still being kept in a special refrigerator there, until she continues on her travels. Her next stop will be in St Petersburg at the Zoological Museum and from there, it is expected that she will go to Jikei University in Japan for three-dimensional computer mapping of her entire body. After that she will return to St Petersburg for an autopsy before she is finally placed on display alongside Dima.

Tikhonov has said that she is remarkably well preserved and other than her shaggy coat being missing, it looks as though she had only recently died. He feels that judging by the skin condition, all of her internal organs have been protected from modern micro-organisms and microbes. She may well be an unprecedented specimen for future molecular, genetic and microbiological studies. The is also the chance that she will provide unique material that may allow scientists to decipher the genetic makeup of the mammoth.

He does dismiss the suggestions of others that she could be used to clone and breed to a live mammoth because the freezing will have likely caused the cells to burst. A delegation of international experts have conducted a preliminary examination of the mammoth and while she hasn't produced the kind of DNA that could be used in cloning, some scientists remain hopeful.

Mammoths first appeared in the Pliocene Epoch, 4.8 million years ago and they are believed to have become extinct with the passing of an isolated population that lived in the remote Wrangel Island, Russia about 3,000 years ago. The cause of their widespread disappearance at the end of the last Ice Age isn't clear but overkill by human hunters, climate changes or a combination of both could be to blame. Mammoths continue to appear in the frozen regions and while the earlier finds were eaten at times, many finds today are lost to the international market for their ivory and body products.

Dima is a male baby mammoth that was discovered in Magadan, Russia's Far East region, in 1977 and until now, was it's best known example of the species. Tikhonov was also at the 1997 unearthing of the partial remains of an adult male mammoth on the Taimyr Penninsula. That mammoth was named "Zharkov", after the local man who discovered it's head and giant tusks jutting out of the ice.

Zharkov is approximately 9 feet tall and believed to have been a male in his prime around 47 years-old. It was first believed that he was a complete specimen and was one of the first that was systematically carved out of the ice in one huge block. After the month long expedition by French, Dutch, American and Russian experts, he was removed in a 20 ton block of ice and transported for further study. It was then that it was revealed that Zharkov was less than complete and the hopes of possible cloning were dashed as well.

Thoughts of cloning are nothing new to the scientific world. Author Michael Crichton described it in his 1990 novel "Jurassic Park" and returned to it in"The Lost World" in 1995. The recent television program "Lost" alludes to that possibility as well. The hopes of cloning a mammoth though are kept alive not only by the fact that they are very closely related to our modern elephants but also that they are the last species from that period to become extinct.

They are thought to have behaved very much like the elephants of today, were herbivorous and possibly had to migrate great distances to continue their grazing. Their remains have been found from the east coast of North America to Ireland to the frozen expanses in Siberia. Russia is the location were the most and best preserved specimens are still found. In comparison to modern elephants, the mammoths stood about 9 feet tall and the modern African Elephant stands approximately 11 feet tall so the idea of raising cloned mammoths would not be too far-fetched.

Time and technology will tell if we do in fact discover the secrets frozen within the mammoth and if we as humans will ever see one walking the earth again.

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