Mammoth article Q&A – Dr. Daniel Fisher, renowned paleontologist

When writing an article in 2012 about the exhibit “Mammoths & Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age”,  it was a great honor to be able to connect with Dr. Daniel Fisher.

His bio at the University of Michigan lists him as Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences; Claude W. Hibbard Collegiate Professor of Paleontology; and Curator and Director, Museum of Paleontology.  Per the Museum’s website, this Museum is not open to the public. It is a research facility.

His research on mammoth tusks has informed our understanding of mammoth life: for example, how well they ate, whether they grew well or poorly, and in which seasons this growth took place.

My first introduction to his work was through the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth“, written by Adrienne Ciuffo for National Geographic.  He was one of the international team of scientists to work with Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth to-date.

Per his interview here with National Geographic, some of their research on Lyuba provided “…the first indication of milk residues in a mammoth calf, the first indication of a neck hump in a mammoth calf and the first evidence that this neck fat served a primarily thermoregulatory function.”

Here is a picture I took at the exhibit in Boston. This is a replica of Lyuba, the baby mammoth discovered by Yuri Khudi and his sons in the Yamal Peninsula, Siberia.

LyubainBoston

Dr. Fisher gave so many fascinating answers to my questions.   I was not able to include all of them in the article. He has very graciously enabled me to share them online below:

1. Can you describe your experience with Lyuba?  What she felt like, what she smelled like, whether she was different from other mammoths you’ve worked with (other than being so well-preserved)?  

At the time when we first examined her, she was frozen, and therefore quite hard on the surface, and with no strong smell.  She had been exposed on the river bank for almost a year, and this meant that she had lost a great deal of her original water content, so this also contributed to her firm surface and relative lack of smell, even as she began to thaw, at the time of our first dissection.  When completely thawed, and when we opened her viscera, her organs were soft and wet inside, somewhat compressed, but otherwise, not so different from those of a fresh carcass.  The smell of her internal tissues was not strong, but mildly sour, which as you probably read, was one of the things that first alerted me to her unusual manner of preservation.

2. The documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” and the exhibit at the Boston Museum of Science gives some detail about your work with tusks and teeth.  Can you tell me more about how you became interested in that part of Mammoths?  How was it discovered that so much information could be found within tusks and teeth?

I first started down this line of investigation when I was working on one of the first mastodon sites that I excavated here in Michigan.  There was a beautiful pair of tusks found at that site, but they had been bit by the backhoe doing the excavation (for a small pond) and were broken in several places.  On the broken surfaces, I saw a series of very regular dark layers, alternating with lighter-colored layers, all paralleling the surface of the conical pulp cavity at the growing end of the tusk.  It seemed clear to me that these were some sort of growth feature, and their regularity suggested that they might represent features that recurred regularly in time, like tree rings.  I realized that if this were the case, then there might be even more we could learn from the thickness and composition of these layers.  It took several years of work to be entirely sure that these really were annual features, but one discovery led to another, and it’s still unfolding in much this fashion.

3. There seems to be more interest in finding molecular fossils.  Do you see this changing how you collect or work with fossils?  Is this changing how you teach your courses?

Yes, there is more interest in these aspects of fossil material, at least in specimens from relatively recent time periods.  In fact, this doesn’t change our procedures much, because what is required to preserve specimens for molecular analyses is not that different from what is required for the best tissue-level and anatomical study.  There is some change in the content of courses, but these different topics still require their own techniques to handle their own types of data.  We therefore tend to focus most instruction on a discipline by discipline basis.  Students thus get their interdisciplinary exposure through taking multiple courses and working with a variety of colleagues.

4. Part of my article will discuss the possibility of cloning Mammoths. Recently Smart News (a blog from the Smithsonian) reported that Hwang Woo Suk intends to have a live Mammoth in six years.  Do you want to comment on this?  Do you see any benefits or disadvantages to bringing Mammoths back to life? 

I will be surprised if the quality of cellular … really, sub-cellular … preservation is adequate for this.  If only on general principles, I wouldn’t want to absolutely rule out the possibility of cloning, but at this point in our knowledge of these things, it’s a real “long shot.”  There might be some things we would learn if it were accomplished, but it is not self-evident that this would provide clear answers to critical questions.  In other words, learning from any technical accomplishment is more like building a house than opening an treasure-chest.  What you get out of it depends entirely on the design and quality of the study.

5. With cloning, my understanding is that scientists would need to use elephants to do this.  But wouldn’t this create a new species: part-elephant and part-Mammoth? Why or why not? 

There are different cloning procedures being considered, and the somatic cell approach planned by the South Korean investigators could in principle come a little closer to giving you a “mammoth”, but it would still be a “mammoth” … in quotes … that is, you would still rely on some of the cellular structures and developmental “machinery” of elephants.

6. Recently, scientists in Japan reported that they have created fertile egg cells from stem cells.  Do you think this research *might* have implications for bringing extinct animals back to life? Why or why not? 

You would still have to recover viable cells, in this case, stem cells, from preserved carcasses of extinct organisms, and this is the big stumbling block.

7. Do you keep in touch with Yuri Khudi or his family?  If so, how are they doing and do they continue to learn about Mammoths?  (Does his wife still object to Lyuba’s name?) 

We met with one of his sons during later field work and will certainly try to contact him if we are again in the area.  I am in regular contact with museum staff in Salekhard, so there may well be additional opportunities.  From what I have heard, the Khudi family is all doing well.  I don’t know how Yuri’s wife feels now about the name of the mammoth, but even when we spent time with the family, back in 2008, it was not anything that she dwelt on.

8. Are there any questions I haven’t asked that you wish I had? 

Right now, elephants are facing an enormous and growing threat from poaching driven by the ivory market.  If we want to continue to learn about all these animals, elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and their relatives, it is critical that we save elephants.  In another sense, mammoths are also “endangered” — to be sure, they are extinct and now past direct harm from us, but the ivory trade still consumes many tons of mammoth ivory each year, and with it goes untold amounts of information on the biology and environments of mammoths.  The single greatest thing we could do for elephants and mammoths is to encourage use of substitutes for ivory.

1. Article I wrote in the Valley News that includes some of the comments above from Dr. Fisher: http://www.vnews.com/home/3694232-95/mammoths-mammoth-exhibit-mastodons, January 7, 2013

2. Dr. Fisher’s bio at the University of Michigan is here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/research/danielfisher

3. His bio on National Geographic for the documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth” can be found here: http://natgeotv.com/asia/waking-the-baby-mammoth/biographies

4. And the University of Michigan’s Museum of Paleontology is found here: http://www.lsa.umich.edu/paleontology/

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