20,000-year-old beast thawed

Expert to tell of discovery of mammoth in Siberian tundra

Posted: Monday, April 30, 2001

The Natives could smell the hair and meat of the woolly mammoth as it thawed on the Siberian tundra.

A few inches of tusk sticking out of the ground led to the discovery of a remarkable prehistoric creature, the body of a woolly mammoth dead and frozen 20,380 years. Geologist Larry Agenbroad, one of the leaders of the international team of scientists studying the iceage beast, will give a presentation tonight in Juneau on the Jarkov Woolly Mammoth. The free public talk begins at 7:30 p.m. in Centennial Hall.

"Fewer than a dozen mammoths have been found in this condition," Agenbroad said.

Agenbroad has brought mammoth hair and wool, and will show slides documenting the discovery, excavation and study of the Jarkov mammoth. The mammoth is named for the family that found it three years ago, members of the Dolgan people of the Russian Far East.

Agenbroad will describe the Jarkov Woolly Mammoth and the expedition that extracted the frozen animal from the Taimyr Peninsula in Siberia. Two years ago, a team of scientists 477 miles north of the Arctic Circle chiseled out a 23-ton block of permafrost that contained the remains of the woolly mammoth. The mammoth, still encased in permafrost, was airlifted by helicopter and flown 100 miles to a permafrost cave laboratory in Khatanga, Siberia. Using hair dryers, scientists have been very slowly thawing small sections of the mammoth for study.

Agenbroad said pollen has been found in the hair, offering clues about the vegetation of the area.

"I'm hoping they'll find intestines and the stomach," Agenbroad said. "I want to see what they were eating."

During the ice age 20,000 years ago, a vast grassy plain called Beringia stretched from Siberia to Alaska, home to camels, horses, musk ox, bison and woolly mammoths. Adult woolly mammoths averaged about eight-and-a-half feet high at the shoulder and weighed about seven tons.

"They have guard hairs over a meter long, then body hair like our hair, about a foot long, then a woolly undercoat four-to-six inches thick," Agenbroad said. The guard hairs shed moisture from animals' flanks.

 

Agenbroad said the heavy coat and a twoinch-thick layer of fat beneath a tough hide made the animals wellsuited for the northern climate.

Agenbroad said analyses of blood samples from other well-preserved specimens have led scientists to believe that woolly mammoths are very closely related to modern Asian elephants.

"To put it simply, the Asian elephant is a modern, temperate zone mammoth," he said.

Scientists think that like modern elephants, mammoths lived in distinct family units led by a dominant female. Sisters, daughters and their young offspring made up the herds, and males lived in separate bachelor herds. Mammoths matured at about 10 or 12 years of age, and lived as long as 60 years.

Agenbroad is a professor of geology at Northern Arizona University. Having spent 35 years working on mammoth remains, he is considered to be one of the world's leading experts specializing in the Pleistocene period today. He is the principal investigator of a site in South Dakota where a group of 50 juvenile male mammoths is being unearthed.

Dr. Agenbroad is one of more than 200 geologists and earth scientists in Juneau this week for the Forest Service's Geofest 2001, a national symposium of geoscience professionals.

The Jarkov Woolly Mammoth has been the topic of two Discovery Channel specials. It is also the centerpiece of a new exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston.

Riley Woodford can be reached at rileyw@juneauempire.com.



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