Mammoth Mummies, Then and Now

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The baby woolly mammoth on the Museum’s fourth floor, displayed right below the hulking frame of a Columbian mammoth, is a rare natural mummy, complete with skin, muscles, and other soft tissue that were preserved centuries ago within a frigid layer of moisture-blocking permafrost.

When the 21,000-year-old specimen washed out of the banks of the Yukon River in 1948, it was one of the best preserved mammoths found in North America. Named Effie for the Fairbanks Exploration (or F.E.) arm of the Alaskan gold mine where it was found, it revealed to scientists new details about the species through measurements, external observations, and comparative studies with other fossils. In short order, it also went on display, becoming the Museum’s second most-famous mummified specimen, after the duck-billed dinosaur Edmontosaurus in the Hall of Ornithischian Dinosaurs.

Fast-forward 60 years. When two mummified mammoth calves, Lyuba and Khroma, were discovered in Siberia in 2007 and 2008, paleontologists turned to a technology that hadn’t been invented yet when Effie was uncovered. Over the next few years, they produced full-body x-ray computerized tomography (CT) scans of the mammoths, data made richer by the fact that the two calves were close in age and, taken together, revealed new insights about mammoth development.

“We were able to use the CT data to do comparative anatomy,” says Zachary T. Calamari, a doctoral candidate in the Museum’s Richard Gilder Graduate School who co-authored the 2014 Journal of Paleontology study as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan.

 Detailed imaging also showed that both animals, which were found at different locations, likely suffocated after inhaling mud—another example of how new imaging technologies are allowing paleontologists to peer back in time and glimpse more than ever before.

 A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.