Woolly Mammoth Opens Doors For Researchers

Lyuba, a 1-month-old baby mammoth, walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously. She miraculously reappeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007, discovered by a reindeer herder. She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered and gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species that vanished at the end of the last ice age. Host Jacki Lyden talks to paleontologist Dan Fisher.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. Poor little Lyuba. She was just one month old when she died mysteriously in northwestern Siberia, about 40,000 years ago. It was a tough time to be a wooly mammoth.

Fast-forward to paleontologist Dan Fisher. He'd been studying wooly mammoths for about 30 years when a reindeer herder found this little mammoth nearly perfectly preserved, sticking out of the Siberian snow.

That was two years ago. She's opened all sorts of doors for researchers like Dan Fisher since then, and today she opens a door for us on Science Out of the Box.

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LYDEN: Dan Fisher is the curator of the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology. The work he and his colleagues have been doing with Lyuba is documented in a National Geographic special airing tomorrow night. Dan Fisher joins us now by telephone.

Welcome to the show.

Mr. DAN FISHER (Curator, University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology): Thank you.

LYDEN: This is sort of a charming story. Would you tell us about some of these doors you're now just starting to peek through with this little, one month old wooly mammoth?

Mr. FISHER: She really is a wonderful specimen. One of the things that's distinctive about her is that she was so healthy, so in the pink right up until the time of her death. The consequence of that is that she really tells us about normal mammoth biology, what things were like for mammoths in the good times, back well before the time of extinction.

LYDEN: Did you find specimens in her lungs, for example, her stomach?

Mr. FISHER: We found material in her intestine and have analyzed that. We have residues of her mother's milk. It's very rich milk. There was also fecal material from probably her mother, which sounds unusual to say the least, but it's in fact normal for elephants and certain other animals to set up the community of bacteria that help them digest plant material once they're weaned.

LYDEN: And how did she perish?

Mr. FISHER: She, it seems, fell into a sort of mud hole along a river and we think choked on mud. There's a little diversity of opinion among the collaborators at the moment, but I think we'll get these things sorted out in due time.

LYDEN: Dan Fisher, I'd like you to take us back to her discovery a couple of years ago, and tell us about the first time that you saw this little mammoth.

Mr. FISHER: I first saw Lyuba the first of July 2007, approximately a month after she was found. We went to the town of Stalachard(ph), a sort of provincial capital near where she was found, and brought her out of the freezer and had a first really good look over her exterior.

LYDEN: What was that like?

Mr. FISHER: Well, the main reaction, I suppose, was she's just so wonderfully preserved, an all-but-living animal.

LYDEN: What did she look like?

Mr. FISHER: She looks a little dried, but she looks really very much like a baby elephant but with a distinctive hump on the back of her neck, which we now know is made of something called brown fat, a special tissue that's capable of generating warmth. It helps an animal to maintain its body temperature under cold stress.

LYDEN: Did she have a little wooly coat?

Mr. FISHER: She had the remains of a little wooly coat. Much of it had fallen out some time after her death, but she otherwise looks really very similar to the way she would have in her life.

LYDEN: You know, Dan Fisher, I know that you've been a scientist on this field of research for a long, long time, but I feel like I can almost hear the excitement in your voice as you think about this little specimen.

Mr. FISHER: Well, that's true, I suppose. It's hard not to let it out. She's really so wonderful. And when you commit so much of your energies and time to understanding some of these problems, to have a chance for this sort of quantum leap in information, it really is special.

LYDEN: Well, Dan Fisher, thank you so much for telling us Lyuba's story today.

Mr. FISHER: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thank you.

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