Last May, a Siberian reindeer herder named Yuri Khudi chanced upon the world’s most intact mammoth remains, unearthed by erosion of a riverbank, and promptly turned them over to the natural history museum in the Russian town of Salekhard. The frozen woolly mammoth, named Lyuba in honor of Khudi’s wife, had died at the age of about 4 months. She is estimated to have lived between 40 thousand and 30 thousand years ago.
“What makes it so special is that it is more complete and better preserved than any comparable mammoth specimens that have ever been found,” says University of Michigan paleontologist Daniel Fisher. “This is a chance to look at mammoth anatomy in its entirety.” The carcass is scheduled to visit Japan for a full-body CT scan before being moved to St. Petersburg for a detailed autopsy.
Paleontologists will focus especially on the chemical and isotopic composition of Lyuba’s baby tusks. Because tusks grow in layers, like tree rings, they hold a record of the animal’s diet and health, as well as the range of temperatures and humidity through which she lived. Such data are key to understanding the environment leading up to the mass extinction that ended the mammoth’s reign. “Good specimens like Lyuba help us to understand these broad issues much more clearly,” Fisher says.
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