CT Scans of Mammoth Calf Mummies Yield Trove of Insights

Three-dimensional scans of two mummified newborn woolly mammoths recovered from the Siberian Arctic revealed new details about the early development of prehistoric proboscideans.

 

“These two exquisitely preserved baby mammoths are like snapshots in time.”

Zachary T. Calamari Ph.D. degree candidate, Richard Gilder Graduate School

 

Conducted in part by Zachary T. Calamari, a doctoral candidate at the Richard Gilder Graduate School advised by Curators Nancy Simmons and John Flynn, the findings also suggest that both animals died from suffocation after inhaling mud. The findings were published July 8, 2014, in a special issue of the Journal of Paleontology.

The newborns, named Lyuba and Khroma by researchers, lived about 40,000 years ago and died at ages one and two months, respectively. Recovered from sites separated by about 3,000 miles, they are the most complete and best-preserved baby mammoth specimens ever found and are referred to as mummies by researchers due to the high levels of soft-tissue preservation, including muscle, fat, connective tissue, organs, and skin.

The CT scan performed on Lyuba, which is part of the permanent collection of Russia's Shemanovsky Museum and Exhibition Center, was the first of its kind for any mammoth. Because of her size (about 110 pounds, slightly smaller than a baby elephant), the researchers could not acquire 3D data from her entire body until they found a specialized piece of equipment—a scanner at Ford Motor Company’s Nondestructive Evaluation Laboratory in Livonia, Michigan.

 

 


CT scans like these provide paleontologists with unprecedented insights into the development of woolly mammoths.
© University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

 

 

“These two exquisitely preserved baby mammoths are like snapshots in time,” said Calamari. “We can use them to understand how factors like location and age influenced the way mammoths grew into the huge adults that captivate us today.”

The scans gave researchers insights into the development of mammoths, which they can compare to their modern descendants, elephants. Khroma’s skull, for instance, showed she had a brain slightly smaller than that of a newborn elephant, suggesting that mammoths had a shorter gestation period.

Lyuba’s skull, meanwhile, was conspicuously narrower than Khroma’s, and her upper jawbones are more slender, while Khroma’s shoulder blades and foot bones are more developed. These differences may simply reflect the one-month age difference between the calves, or they could relate to the different populations from which the two calves were derived.