April 21, 2009

Mammoth validates scientist’s approach

Scientists say the remains of a 40,000-year-old baby mammoth found in Siberia two years ago validate techniques created by U.S. paleontologist Daniel Fisher.

Fisher, a University of Michigan professor, developed the technique of extracting information about prehistoric pachyderms' lives from their teeth and tusks. Although other mammoth specimens have been found with soft tissues preserved, Fisher said the baby mammoth, known as Lyuba, is unique.

What makes Lyuba different is the quality and completeness of her preservation, he said. No other specimen preserves this much of the original anatomy.

Fisher said Lyuba provided him and graduate student Adam Rountrey an opportunity to validate his techniques. Traces of mother's milk in her intestines -- the first milk residues ever found in a baby mammoth -- and the fatty hump on the back of her neck meant Lyuba was well nourished, and that agreed with Fisher's analyses of tusk and tooth material.

The methods that we have built over the years really do work, and this is the first time we've been able to show that so directly, Fisher said. He said the confirmation opens the door to broader applications of the methods, which could help resolve the question of why mammoths became extinct.

The research appears in the May issue of National Geographic magazine and will be featured Sunday at 9 p.m. EDT on the National Geographic Channel.