"Lyuba" gives scientists glimpse of mammoth insides

MOSCOW Thu Apr 10, 2008 1:07pm EDT

1 of 2. The carcass of the 4-month-old mammoth, known to researchers as Lyuba, is seen on an examining table in a Russian laboratory in an undated photo. Russian scientists say they have obtained the most detailed pictures so far of the insides of a prehistoric animal, with the help of a baby mammoth called Lyuba found immaculately preserved in the Russian Arctic.

Credit: Reuters/Daniel Fisher, University of Michigan/Bernard Buigues/Handout

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian scientists say they have obtained the most detailed pictures so far of the insides of a prehistoric animal, with the help of a baby mammoth called Lyuba found immaculately preserved in the Russian Arctic.

The mammoth is named after the wife of the hunter who found her last year. The body was shipped back to Russia in February from Japan, where it was studied using computer tomography in a process similar to one doctors use to scan patients.

"We could see for the first time how internal organs are located inside a mammoth. It is pretty important from a scientific point of view," said Alexei Tikhonov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Science's Zoological Institute, who has been leading the project.

"Her internal organs were well preserved -- the heart was seen distinctly with all its ventricles and atria, as well as the liver and its veins," Tikhonov told Reuters.

"This is the best preserved specimen not only of the mammoth but of any prehistoric animal."

The mammoth species has been extinct since the Ice Age. Tests on Lyuba showed she was fed on milk and was three to four months old when she died 37,000 years ago in what is now the Yamalo-Nenetsk region in Russia's Arctic.

Scientists were excited by the find because, although her shaggy coat was gone, her skin was intact, protecting her internal organs from contamination by modern-day microbes.

Tikhonov said the computer tomography, which provided a sharp three-dimensional image of Lyuba's insides, revealed no injuries or fractures.

The scans showed her airways and digestive system were clogged with what scientists believe was silt, leading them to conclude that she must have drowned.

GENETIC MAP

Tikhonov, who heads the Zoological Museum in Russia's second city of St Petersburg, said Lyuba's contribution to science could be far bigger than thought up to now.

"If we take samples of Lyuba's tissues by biopsy, without unfreezing her, there is a big chance we can obtain promising results in genetics and microbiology," he said by telephone from St Petersburg.

"I believe the genetic map (of the mammoth) will be decoded within a year or two. As for (Lyuba's) practical use, we will have discovered methods of decoding the genetic map of any extinct prehistoric animals," he said.

"There were species that died out during the human era. And while I do not think someone would attempt to reproduce the mammoth, it would still make sense to bring back to life gigantic birds from Madagascar or New Zealand, or the Steller's sea cow (an extinct mammal), and so on and so forth."

Lyuba's body is stored in a purpose-built container that maintains sub-zero temperatures to prevent the pre-historic tissue from decomposing. She will soon be flown to Salekhard, capital of the Yamalo-Netnetsk region.

"She will be exhibited in Salekhard starting this summer," Tikhonov said. "A special glass-case with constant sub-zero temperatures has already been prepared for her."

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

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