23,000-YEAR-OLD CREATURE MAY BE CLONED
Woolly mammoth unearthed in Siberia
WASHINGTON (Reuters) Scientists said Wednesday they had dug a woolly mammoth from the Siberian permafrost and transported it, virtually intact and still frozen, to a laboratory for study.
They used a radar imaging technique to "see" the mammoth in its icy grave, then excavated a huge block of frozen dirt around it to preserve the 23,000-year-old creature.
"It is the first time that a mammoth carcass from the permafrost of Siberia has been excavated under such cold conditions," said Dick Mol of the Museum of Natural History in Rotterdam, Netherlands, who has written several books on mammoths.
Samples have been sent to a laboratory for possible attempts to clone the animal, and scientists will study the carcass to try to find out why and how it died.
Mol said he was thrilled by the discovery: "When you find the remains of the animal ... you can touch them and even you can smell them when you use a hair dryer to melt the permafrost."
The paleontologists, led by North Pole and Siberian explorer Bernard Buigues, were directed to the site by local residents who found a tusk sticking up out of the ground.
They dug up the head, which had partially thawed and decayed, and decided to stop digging for fear of destroying their find.
They brought in ground-penetrating radar. "It is a system that gave an anomaly other than ice and soil. From this anomaly, it was interpreted that there was the body of the animal in the permafrost and the ice," Larry Agenbroad, a mammoth expert at Northern Arizona University, said.
They used jackhammers to break up the frozen soil, which was as hard as concrete, dug a trench around the mammoth and then tunneled underneath before breaking it free.
On Oct. 17 a rare sunny day a helicopter lifted the 22-ton block of frozen dirt and flew it 320 km to the Russian city of Khatanga.
In Khatanga it has been put into an ice cellar, which has a constant temperature of minus 12° C.
"In April, we will return to Khatanga," Mol said. They will use a rack of hair dryers to thaw out the block, layer by layer, and examine every speck of plant matter and animal remains they can find in the soil surrounding the mammoth. "We hope, of course, to find the internal parts of the ... mammoth."
Discovery Channel, which funded and filmed the expedition, released videotape showing the helicopter carrying the huge block. The mammoth's tusks curved out of one side of the block, and its thick hair matted the surface.
Buigues confessed that he had taken a bit of dramatic license in sticking the tusks into the side of the block.
"For me this mammoth is a star," he said. "I had to take care of him like a star. To travel from (the) place where he slept for more than 20,000 years without his tusks was a pity. I wanted to give him a second life."
Alexei Tikhonov of the Zoological Institute, in Russia's second city of St. Petersburg, had earlier stressed that the mammoth carcass was not complete.
But he and Buigues said the science behind the expedition was more important.
"I will be proud if we have only 85 or 90 percent of the mammoth," Buigues said.
The mammoth, dubbed "Zharkov" after a local man who first discovered its tusk sticking out of the ice in 1997, was a 3-meter-tall adult male that would have looked like a hairy elephant to the modern eye.
Carbon dating of bits taken from the mammoth at the site show it is 23,000 years old. Other tests show it died at the prime of its life, aged about 47 years, Mol said.
Pieces will be sent off to other laboratories for testing.
"I have been approached by a lab in the United States that has a track record with cryogenetics," Agenbroad said, referring to the science of using frozen genetic material. "They have done cloning. They know the procedure, have experimented with elephants and have elephants available."
If they can get an intact cell nucleus, they may try to clone the mammoth using an elephant egg and an elephant as a surrogate mother. Or they might use frozen sperm, if they can get any, to try to create an elephant-mammoth hybrid.
The excavation also offers good opportunities to paleontologists trying to understand what Siberia looked like 20,000 years ago.
Mol said they have found bits of well-preserved plants that suggest the mammoth died on or near a pond. "It still had its original green color," Mol said. "This is, for paleontology, a big discovery."
A WOOLLY MAMMOTH was unearthed from the Siberian permafrost Oct. 17 and transported, intact and still frozen to a laboratory for study. Scientists used radar imaging to find the 23.000-vear-old creature. then excavated a huge block of dirt to preserve it. REUTERS PHOTO