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Entire woolly mammoth resurrected in Siberia

By: Cynthia Reynolds, October 19, 1999

Important update (January 9, 2001):
The woolly mammoth excavated by a team sponsored by the Discovery Channel 15 months ago appears not to have been a complete specimen. Return here tomorrow for the full details.

*Just getting the tusks out of the ground can be an expedition on its own.

A fully intact woolly mammoth body, complete with fur and flesh, has been successfully exhumed from the Siberian grave it has rested in for the past 23,000 years. The mammoth - called Jarkov, after the nomadic reindeer herder who first discovered it in 1997 - represents a scientific milestone. It's the first time scientists have been able to preserve the soft tissue, making cloning a remote, yet not impossible, possibility.

"This is a first," says Larry Agenbroad, a member of an international team working on the find. "It's the first time that a Pleistocene animal as big as a mammoth has been brought up still encased in its tomb of permafrost and ice and airlifted to an ice tunnel where it could be studied at a leisurely pace.

* Close-up of the mammoth body being carried away by helicopter. Click camera at the top of the page to see a REALVIDEO clip.

The animal was found under 4.57 metres of permafrost in the Taimyr Peninsula near the Arctic Ocean. The team, which started the excavation in July, used ground-penetrating x-rays to view the body and jackhammers to dig around it. On Sunday, October 17, the mammoth was successfully airlifted by helicopter to Khatanga, Russia, about 322 kilometres away.

Enclosed in a 24-tonne solid block of permafrost, the carcass dangled perilously from the bottom of the aircraft. It currently is sitting on the tarmac of a military airport waiting to be placed in an ice cave that mimics the cold, dry conditions it needs for preservation; warmer temperatures or increased humidity can damage the body almost immediately. Scientists will soon begin the arduous process of defrosting the animal with 15 hair dryers, one small section at a time.

Once defrosted, scientists from around the world will flock to the Khatanga ice cave to study the mammoth. Already the team, which includes Agenbroad, Dutch paleontologist Dick Mol and the leader, French explorer Bernard Buigues, is flooded with proposals from around the world. Among the many areas scientists hope to research are the mammoth's blood chemistry, parasites, bacteria and viruses, gut content and of course, some hope to extract viable DNA for cloning.

Jarkov will be the first mammoth to be studied so extensively because this it the first time the soft tissue has been preserved. In previous mammoth finds, the soft tissue was destroyed during the excavation process.

"Usually the way to excavate was to heat water, blast it through a hose and literally melt the animal out of the ground. But that also destroyed the soft tissue," says Agenbroad.

This time, though, the team used ground-penetrating radar to get an idea of where the mammoth body was in the ground, and then used jackhammers to cut around it.

* The Siberian version of extreme driving: the reindeer sleigh.

The major problem the team had, in fact, had nothing to do with the excavation process at all. Rather the Siberian conditions were major challenges, especially the lack of fuel, which they needed to use the helicopters (the only means of transportation, other than the "ultimate ATV" - the reindeer sled) and for heat.

"Our biggest single problem with this Jarkov mammoth was lack of fuel. And that seems to be a recurring problem with Northern Siberia. It is a logistical problem and I think the Chechnian war didn't help any with getting fuel to the north either," says Agenbroad.

As for the team, they plan to return to the Taimyr Peninsula to search for other animals of the ice age, such as the woolly rhino, reindeer and horses. Agenbroad hopes they can reconstruct just what this region looked like during the ice age period thousands upon thousands of years ago.

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