The mammoth, nicknamed "Yuka," was found entombed in Siberian ice near the shores of the Arctic Ocean and shows signs of having a run in with prehistoric humans.
The carcass is in such good shape that much of its flesh is still intact, retaining its pink color. The blonde-red hue of Yuka's woolly coat also remains.
"This is the first relatively complete mammoth carcass -- that is, a body with soft tissues preserved -- to show evidence of human association, Daniel Fisher, curator and director of the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology, told Discovery News.
Fisher, who is also a professor, worked with an international team of experts to analyze Yuka. French mammoth hunter Bernard Buigues of the scientific organization "Mammuthus" saved the specimen from falling into the hands of private collectors.
Although carbon dating is still in the works, the researchers believe Yuka died at least 10,000 years ago, but may be much older. The animal was about 2 ½ years of age when it died.
Fisher described what likely happened on that fateful day:
"It appears that Yuka was pursued by one or more lions or another large felid, judging from deep, unhealed scratches in the hide and bite marks on the tail," Fisher said. "Yuka then apparently fell, breaking one of the lower hind legs. At this point, humans may have moved in to control the carcass, butchering much of the animal and removing parts that they would use immediately. They may, in fact, have reburied the rest of the carcass to keep it in reserve for possible later use. What remains now would then be 'leftovers' that were never retrieved."
He explained that the removed parts include most of the main core mass of Yuka's body, including organs, vertebrae, ribs, associated musculature, and some of the meat from upper parts of the legs. The lower parts of each leg and the trunk remain intact.
Buigues added that it appears the humans were particularly interested in the animal's fat and its large bones, which they kept close to the body of the carcass. He believes it is possible that a ritual may have taken place involving the bones.
Kevin Campbell of the University of Manitoba also studied Yuka. Campbell famously published the genetic code of mammoth hemoglobin a few years ago.
“Most permafrost-preserved mammoth specimens consist solely of bones or bone fragments that currently provide little new insight into the species’ biology in life, even if DNA can be extracted and sequenced from these samples,” Campbell said. “Thus this extremely rare finding of a near complete specimen, like the discovery of the baby mammoth Lyuba in 2007, will be a boon to researchers as it will help them link observed phenotypes (morphological features that we can see) with genotype (DNA sequences).”
Such information could help to reveal whether or not mammoths had all of the same hair colors that humans do. An intriguing and controversial application would be to bring a mammoth back to life via cloning.
Campbell supports pursuit of that goal, saying it “may well lead to important new discoveries in bioengineering.” Buigues is also in favor and said, “I’m not against having a mammoth in my garden in future.”
Tim Walker, producer and director of a forthcoming BBC/Discovery Channel show called “Woolly Mammoth” that will feature Yuka, told Discovery News that cloning a mammoth could take years or even decades.
“Then, if it did happen, wouldn’t a single mammoth be lonely and sad?” he asked. “They were, after all, communal animals.”