U-M paleontologist says 'meat is still pink' on Woolly Mammoth carcass he helped unearth
In the northern expanses of Siberia, a scavenger looking for an ivory tusk to trade on the black market found what he was looking for... and much more.
The person discovered that the tusk was actually attached to a young Woolly Mammoth, estimated to be between 10,000- and 30,000-years-old, that had been nearly perfectly preserved in the icy, frozen ground near the shores of the Arctic Ocean in Northern Asia.
It turns out the treasure discovered was worth much more than money: It can provide answers. Real, concrete answers on what contributed to the extinction of mammoths.
"This is almost like nothing else that we have ever seen before," said University of Michigan paleontologist and researcher Daniel Fisher, who is helping other scientists investigate the carcass.
According to Fisher's research, just three preserved mammoth carcasses have been discovered in the past decade.
"This is one animal. It's one animal's death but it can give us insight into the kinds of things that were happening in those environments and those times and that can shed further light on the cause of extinction."
Fisher and his crew of 15 excavators, scientists and media specialists —the excavation of the mammoth was funded in part by the BBC and Discovery Channel, which filmed the process— spent a week in late February and early March investigating the mammoth carcass, which they named Yuka because it was discovered in the Yakutia region of northern Siberia.
The animal's discovery is significant because markings on the carcass indicate it was first attacked by a predator —probably lions— then broke its leg running from the predator. Fisher believes that as the mammoth was being pursued by lions, humans scared the predators away and killed the mammoth themselves, severing certain body parts but never returning for the rest of the carcass.
"That in itself is part of the interesting story that this specimen tells," he said. "The lions were undoubtedly ready to have at it and have their feast when it seems that early humans may have scared the lions off the animal and they might have done the actual killing of the animal and the initial butchering."
Photo courtesy of U-M
"The marks are suggestive of human activity," he said. "It doesn’t look like wolves, it doesn’t look like lions, it doesn't look like bears."
Fisher said the level of preservation of the animal's carcass is unusually high.
"The meat is still pink. It looks like meat that you could get in the grocery store," he said. "The skin is still supple. It feels like hair."
Because certain parts of the animal were removed by its human predators, Fisher and his crew are uncertain about the mammoth's sex and exact age. A paleontology lab is conducting forensic tests to find out, Fisher says.
Fisher plans to return to Siberia this summer to investigate Yuka further and explore the area for similar carcasses. His team plans to conduct a full CT scan on the animal.
"That would give us information on the internal condition," Fisher said. Information about the animal's health, what time of year it died and how it fit into a human diet could be critical in learning more about factors leading to the Woolly Mammoth's extinction.