The Adams Mammoth

The first mammoth brought back from the Siberian wilderness to civilization proved hardly less surprising than a stuffed Abominable Snowman would today, confirming what had until then been merely outlandish legends and folk tales of great furry beasts that lived underground in the treacherous lands of the tundra. On the coast of the icy Laptev Sea in remote north-central Siberia, a local hunter named Shumakhov noted an odd large lump in the frozen ground in 1799. He watched it emerge from the shoreline as the natural thawing progressed, little by litde each year, until in 1803 the entire carcass of a woolly mammoth collapsed out of the permafrost onto a sandbank. Shumakhov cut off the tusks and sold them for the ivory content. Pleased with his find, he related the story of their origin to the merchant who bought the tusks.

In 1806 the Scottish botanist Michael Adams heard accounts of the alleged shaggy hulk from which a certain pair of excellent tusks had come. Convinced by further inquiry that the wild story had some basis in truth, Adams made the long, arduous journey to the Laptev coast site to see for himself. The locals had stripped the carcass by this time, carving off the meat for their dogs. Carnivores and scavengers had eviscerated and defleshed the rest of the body. Nonetheless, the skeleton and most of the woolly hide survived. Adams gathered up all the shredded and torn fur he could find from the scavengers' leftovers, and brought it back with the rest of the remains. The St. Petersburg Institute of Zoology museum received the Adams find, creating the first mount of a woolly mammoth. Adams's find also succeeded in transforming a myth into the basis of a new understanding of the history of life.

Mammoths appear to have been preserved most commonly in cases when the animal became mired or sank in a treacherous wet environment such as a bog, the muddy shores of a lake or river, or a frozen lake whose ice the mammoth broke and fell through. In each case, the body became concealed and locked in the permafrost. Riverbanks contain a high proportion of mammoth remains, which may have been preserved during times of floods. This combination of entombment and waterlogged refrigeration forms the standard scenario for mammoth preservation, rather than the open-air freeze-drying, which preserved bodies such as the Greenland Inuit mummies.

Mammoth mummies are discovered when some factor causes part of the body to become exposed. Changing deposition and erosion along rivers and streambeds have exposed bodies that were previously buried, just as the Adams mammoth was uncovered. A century later, the great Berezovka River mammoth mummy was exposed by the collapse of cliffside sediments near the Arctic Circle. This mummy was reached by a scientific team before much damage occurred beyond the flesh and skin of the head. Removed little by little, the mammoth was carefully butchered in place for delivery to St. Petersburg in 1901, where it is mounted today in its death pose just as it was found, with a reconstructed head and trunk. Unusual thaws and warm weather can lead to fresh exposures of bodies that have lain concealed under ice or snow, as in the case of 18,000-year-old mammoth remains recovered in 2002 and later displayed at the 2005 World Exposition in Aichi, Japan. Exceptionally low water levels can reveal sediments ordinarily immersed, and expose mammoth remains as well.

When mammoth bodies are discovered as natural exposures, they begin rapidly to decay and putrefy. Frozen in an arrested state rather than freeze-dried into a permanent state of preservation, their flesh retains all the potential of a fresh kill for supporting standard bacterial decomposition, as well as attracting macrobiotic scavengers such as the bears, wolves, and foxes that fed on the flesh of the Adams mammoth. When it begins to thaw, a frozen mammoth mummy quickly becomes just a moist carcass.

Modern mammoth hunters therefore look for small exposures — a few vertebrae poking out of the ground, perhaps—in hopes of being able to uncover a preserved mammoth before natural exposure occurs and ruins the rest of the carcass. Ground-penetrating radar is employed by some searchers to determine whether enough of the mammoth remains underground to warrant the difficult work of excavation in this environment, where time is a critical resource. Mammoth hunters must carry out their activities during the short Siberian summer before the cold once again locks everything down.

The preserved soft tissues of mammoth mummies offer anatomical information unobtainable from the skeletons alone. The fur shows the color mammoths were (in contrast to the stone fossils that never tell us what color dinosaurs were). They had grayish-brown skin, with a camel-brown undercoat of fur covered over with reddish-brown outer hairs. The mammoths' trunk structures are revealed by the mummies, ending in a curious, almost hand-like combination of elements, with a straight lower lip edge like a paint scraper opposed by a single central finger-like projection above. Mammoths have only four toes rather than the five of modern elephants. They even feature a quite unsuspected adaptation to the cold of the Ice Age: a flap of skin protecting the anal opening. Tusks discovered in place show that these spiraled inward, toward each other, rather than outward, as had been imagined. Their diet has been confirmed from the leaves, grass, and buttercups discovered still in the mouth, as well as in the stomach.

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