Big in Japan: 37,000 year-old baby mammoth arrives in Japan

This past Saturday, the frozen corpse of a baby mammoth arrived at Tokyo International Airport, just in time for the New Year’s festivities.

Discovered last May by a reindeer herder near the Yuribei River in northern Siberia’s remote Yamal-Nenets region, the six-month-old female mammoth calf had been encased in a layer of permafrost for 37,000 years.

According to Russian officials, the baby mammoth’s state of preservation is nothing less than remarkable.

The frozen mammoth’s trunk and eyes are entirely intact, and much of the body is still covered in fur. However, the tails and ears are missing, though there is evidence that they were apparently bitten off.

Alexei Tikhonov, the Russian Academy of Science’s Zoological Institute’s deputy director, has already stated on several occasions that the prospect of cloning the animal was unlikely.

Under freezing conditions, the whole cells required for cloning burst from invading ice crystals, though the DNA is kept nearly intact.

According to Mitsuyoshi Uno, an official with the joint Russo-Japanese mammoth-study project, this DNA will undoubtedly give us a better insight into phylogeny and physiology of these extinct wonders of nature.

After touching down in Japan, the mammoth was transferred to Tokyo’s Jikei Medical University, where it will undergo a computed tomography (CT) scan.

A CT scan is a groundbreaking diagnostic tool that allows scientists to get 3-D pictures of the body that is nearly as detailed as conducting an actual autopsy.

As a result, the goal of the research is to acquire detailed information about the animal’s organs and internal structure while simultaneously preserving the intact body.

So what exactly is a mammoth?

The word “mammoth” refers to any species of the extinct genus Mammuthus, which were proboscideans (elephants or their extinct relatives) equipped with long curved tusks and covered in long hair.

Mammoths lived from the Pliocene epoch from 4.8 million years ago to around 4,500 years, which coincided with the end of the last Ice Age.

To date, a definitive explanation for their mass extinction is yet to be agreed upon, though there are three predominant competing theories.

One hypothesis is that the entire population was wiped out due to climate change, which is a scary proposition (to say the least) considering the precarious nature of our present situation (eg global warming, greenhouse gases, polar ice melting, etc.).

A second theory suggests that the entire population was wiped out due to infectious disease, which is also a scary proposition (to say the least) considering the precarious nature of our present situation (eg SARS, avian flu, HIV/AIDS, MRSA, etc).

Another theory was that mammoth populations were hunted to the brink of extinction by early human, who may have depended on them for food and clothing. Archaeologists have found butcher marks on several mammoth bones, and their remains are often found in association with early human camp sites.

Anyway, in case you’ve never seen a mammoth before (few of us have!), the frozen carcass and scan images will go on public display starting on January 4 at an office building in central Tokyo.