Lyuba led a short life. But she has become endlessly significant. At around 35 days, the infant mammoth tumbled into soft clay. Her trunk and oesophagus were clogged with mud and she suffocated.
There she stayed for 42,000 years while a remarkable combination of factors kept her preserved. Firstly, she was buried quickly, then a stew of bacteria formed a mild acid that pickled the beast and finally the permafrost swallowed and held the body almost intact
Reindeer herder Yuri Khudi spotted a carcass in the Siberian snow in May 2007 as he searched for wood by the Yuribei River. Siberia is rich with mammoth finds and climate change is revealing more all the time so Yuri was aware of the importance of his find, which he named Lyuba after his wife, meaning “love”.
Such was Lyuba’s preservation, remains of her mother’s milk were found in her stomach, along with traces of her mother’s dung, which she had eaten to obtain vital digestive microbes.
The world’s most complete mammoth makes her first appearance in Western Europe at Mammoths: Ice Age Giants at the Natural History Museum. The exhibition traces the story of the mammoth from five million years ago to their recent extinction 4,000 years ago when the last herd on Wrangel Island died out.
Mammoths researcher Prof Adrian Lister said: “Lyuba is hugely important for helping us to understand the lives of ice age animals. Not only is she the most complete of the mammoths we have, but because she’s been found recently we have a whole battery of scientific tests that can be applied to her.”
Lyuba – pro- nounced Looba – is the flagship specimen in a rich and interactive exhibition that tells a story of survival and extinction which resonates with the plight of their close relative the elephant.
Prof Lister said: “The exhibition is tremendously appealing for family visitors because it has huge fossils and models of some of the biggest mammals ever to walk the earth and lots of interactive stuff for children.
“In addition we’ve been able to incorporate the latest cutting edge research – first of all there is the paradoxical and extraordinary phenomenon of the dwarf mammoths and we’re showcasing material that has never been seen in public before.”
These are one metre tall as opposed to the largest Colombian mammoth, four times its size.
“Secondly we’ve incorporated information on the latest research on mammoth DNA. We’re a little bit cool on the idea of cloning, we don’t think the technology is there at all. So we’re emphasising what you can do with DNA.”
He said that this had revealed that the familiar orange colour of mammoth fur found in specimens such as Lyuba represented a degradation of the pigment and mammoths were actually dark brown.
“The third area of new research is the cause of extinction of the mammoth by a programme of carbon dating.
“We have shown that the contraction of the mammoth’s range took thousands of years from its original vast expanse down to a very small final population.
“That was almost certainly driven by natural climate change after the ice which reduced the grassland habitat as the forests expanded. And there may have been a contribution at the end by hunting by prehistoric people.
“Our conclusion is that it’s a combination of climate and hunting which probably caused the extinction of the mammoth and that leads into the conserving of modern elephants which are faced by the same threats.”
However, the story is not yet complete. The DNA has yielded only a few of its secrets while the cutting edge CT scanning will allow the non-intrusive examination of the fossil record.
Meanwhile, global warming is thawing the permafrost and revealing more finds all the time.
Prof Lister said: “There are lots more mammoths under the ground in Siberia.
“The most of the finds are incomplete but the number of partial carcasses has been increasing in recent years. The first was recovered in 1799 and the last 10 years or so has seen as many partial carcasses of mammoths as in the preceding 200. Almost certainly there will be more exciting finds in the future.”
To Sept 7, Natural History Museum, £10, £6, nhm.ac.uk/mammoths.
- Columbian mammoths ate around 230kg of food a day. Their diet consisted primarily of grasses, sedges and rushes.
- The coat of a woolly mammoth consisted of a guard of long hairs, and an undercoat of shorter hairs. Their hair grew up to a metre long.
- Scientists can tell a mammoth’s age by the rings in its tusks, much like the rings of a tree. Tusks give more detail than a tree trunk, as there are corresponding lines for the days and months of a mammoth’s life, as well as the years.
- Woolly mammoths were hunted by Neanderthals, and later Homo sapiens, for their pelts and meat.