Mammoths in the freezer

Adrian Lister (UK) As palaeontologists, we are used to relying on the preserved hard parts of extinct organisms – shells, bones, teeth and so on – to reconstruct their appearance and adaptations in life. The reconstruction of soft tissue relies upon our knowledge of related living forms, plus clues such as the scars of muscle attachments on bones or shells. Exceptions include body outlines preserved in the fine-grained sediments of Lagerstätte, such as in the Eocene of Messel (Germany) or the Cambrian Burgess Shale (Canada); or, even more rarely, organisms preserved in 3D, of which the most familiar source is Tertiary amber. Among mammals, the most celebrated case of exceptional preservation is provided by the carcasses preserved in permafrost in Siberia (Russia), Alaska (USA) and the Yukon (Canada), at localities lying almost exclusively north of the Arctic Circle (Lister and Bahn, 2007). Almost all date to the last glaciation, with radiocarbon dates typically in the range 50 to 10,000 years ago. Species from which partial or whole carcasses have been recovered include bison, horse, wolverine, woolly rhinoceros and, above all, the woolly mammoth. The reason for the preponderance of these is unclear, although it may partly be a matter of reporting bias, other species being considered less interesting or less valuable when discovered by local people. Even so, not more than a dozen or so complete or largely complete mammoth carcasses have been recovered to date. While Siberian natives have doubtless been finding these remains for millennia, the first carcass … Read More

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