MOSCOW, July 11 (Reuters) - The discovery of a baby mammoth preserved in the Russian permafrost gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species extinct since the Ice Age, a Russian scientist said on Wednesday.
"It's a lovely little baby mammoth indeed, found in perfect condition," said Alexei Tikhonov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Science's Zoological Institute, which has been taking care of the mammoth since it was uncovered in May.
"This specimen may provide unique material allowing us to ultimately decipher the genetic makeup of the mammoth," he told Reuters by telephone.
The mammoth, a female who died at the age of six months, was named "Lyuba" after the wife of reindeer breeder and hunter Yuri Khudi who found her in Russia's Arctic Yamalo-Nenetsk region.
She had been lying in the frozen ground for up to 40,000 years, said Tikhonov.
The hunter initially thought the mammoth was a dead reindeer when he spotted parts of her body sticking out of damp snow.
When he realised it was a mammoth, scientists were called in and transported the body to regional capital Salekhard, where she is now being kept in a special refrigerator.
TREASURE TROVE FOR SCIENTISTS
Weighing 50 kg (110 lb), and measuring 85 centimetres high and 130 centimetres from trunk to tail, Lyuba is roughly the same size as a large dog.
Tikhonov said the fact the mammoth was so remarkably well-preserved -- its shaggy coat was gone but otherwise it looked as though it had only recently died -- meant it was a potential treasure trove for scientists.
"Such a unique skin condition protects all the internal organs from modern microbes and micro-organisms ... In terms of its future genetic, molecular and microbiological studies, this is just an unprecedented specimen."
But Tikhonov dismissed suggestions the mammoth could be cloned and used to breed a live mammoth. Cloning can only be done if whole cells are intact, but the freezing conditions will have caused the cells to burst, he Tikhonov.
Tikhonov said the next stop on Lyuba's odyssey would be the Zoological Museum in Russia's second city of St Petersburg.
There, Lyuba will join a male baby mammoth called Dima who was unearthed in Magadan in Russia's Far East in 1977 and until now was Russia's best-known example of the species.
"They will make a nice couple, both roughly aged 40,000 years," Tikhonov said.
From St Petersburg, Lyuba will go to Jikei University in Japan to undergo three-dimensional computer mapping of her body. The mammoth will then return to St Petersburg for an autopsy before being put on display in Salekhard.
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