The discovery of a female mammoth carcass preserved in snow could allow biologists to bring the ancient creatures back from extinction.
The mammoth, which scientists have nicknamed Buttercup, was found frozen in Siberia in May 2013, and carbon dating of her flesh has revealed that she died 40,000 years ago.
Buttercup’s carcass also revealed that:
- She had approximately eight successful calving events and one calf lost, which could be determined by analysing her tusks. 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.
- She was in her 50s when she 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. An examination of the teeth revealed dental abnormalities, indicating she wasn’t able to chew her food correctly, which may explain the gobstopper-sized stones found in the gut.
- She was not much larger than a modern Asian elephant.
- She died by becoming trapped in a peat bog and being eaten alive by predators from the rear end.
Despite its age, the carcass is the best-preserved mammoth to ever be discovered, and was even oozing a dark red liquid, found to be blood, when it was dug up.
Scientists believe they may now be able to clone the animal and bring the species back to life.
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.”
An autopsy of the mammoth will be shown in a Channel 4 documentary later this month, which will also look into the leading mammoth de-extinction programmes happening right now in the United States and South Korea.
Woolly Mammoth – The Autopsy will air on Channel 4 at 8pm on 23 November. In the US, the show will air on the Smithsonian Channel at 8pm on 29 November.
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