Meet Lyuba – Mummified Baby Mammoth in London

“She’s beautiful.”

So exclaimed Professor Adrian Lister upon seeing Lyuba as the lid to her crate was first opened in London. Lyuba is a 42,000-year-old baby mammoth, and her state of preservation is breathtaking.

”It was an emotional experience to be face-to-face with a baby mammoth from the Ice Age,” Professor Lister said. “I’m so thrilled that our visitors will be able to experience that, too.”

NHM-DrListerLyubawelcome

[image of Professor Adrian Lister with Lyuba, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

Her discovery occurred in 2006, thanks to a family of Nenets reindeer herders in Siberia. Lyuba was initially found–her body partially exposed in the snow–by Yuri Khudi’s son. She was recovered in the spring of 2007, and she is named after Mr. Khudi’s wife.

NHM-YuriKhudiSon

[image of Yuri Khudi and son, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

If you are in London, you can actually see her on exhibit in Mammoths: Ice Age Giants currently at the Natural History Museum.

Mammoths: Ice Age Giants is a traveling exhibit from The Field Museum, Chicago. Since 2010, it has been seen throughout the United States (albeit under a slightly different title), but most museums have included a replica of the baby mammoth.

LyubainBoston

 

[image of Lyuba replica, taken by the author’s cellphone at the exhibit in Boston, 2012]

The replica is remarkable. But the opportunity to see Lyuba herself is extraordinary.

When asked how the Natural History Museum was able to obtain the actual mammoth, Professor Lister wrote, “The Museum worked closely with Lyuba’s home institution, the Shemanovsky Museum – Exhibition Complex in Siberia, Russia to get the opportunity to showcase Lyuba as the star of the show in Mammoths: Ice Age Giants. This involved complex contract negotiations and we are very grateful to the Shemanovsky Museum for the loan of such an important specimen.”

Hilary Hansen, one of the Field Museum’s Traveling Exhibition Managers, explained that only one of the US museums has been able to showcase Lyuba thus far.

Surprisingly, the reason is not related to cost.

“[T]he Russian government has a moratorium on loans to the US,” she wrote, “so only international venues get to host her.”

(You can read more about the origins of this moratorium here: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/03/arts/design/03museum.html)

And how does one ship and display such a rare and enormously valuable specimen?

It was explained that Lyuba has been thawed since discovery, but her body was essentially freeze-dried over the course of her 42,000 years of burial. She traveled to London in a purpose built wooden case which has padding/foam fitted specifically to her body inside so as to protect her during travel. Within the exhibition, she will be displayed in a climate-controlled and sealed case.

NHM-LyubaVisitors

[image of Lyuba and visitors, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

So much has been learned about mammoths since her discovery. Through CT scans, autopsies, and other tests, scientists have been able to ascertain more about her diet specifically and mammoth biology in general.

NHM-LyubaScientistsRussia

NHM-LyubaScientistsLab

[images of Lyuba and scientists, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

 

An exciting example is described in Professor Lister’s latest book, Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age: the discovery of a pharyngeal pouch between the larynx and the back of her tongue. He discusses the relatively recent knowledge of this anatomical feature in today’s elephants. The pharyngeal pouch can be used for communication and to store water. Elephants in Namibia, he explains, have been seen reaching into their mouths with their trunks and spraying themselves with water they had drunk hours before. (page 80)

Pieces of material believed to be partially digested milk from Lyuba’s mother were found in her stomach (page 84), and her intestinal contents point to a practice used in today’s elephants as well: eating adult elephant feces as a way to introduce needed bacteria for digestion. (pages 84-85)

These are the kinds of exciting details one can explore in this exhibit. Using interactive displays, fossils, sculptures and other artwork, this exhibit not only introduces the visitor to some of the fascinating research being conducted today, but also summarizes some of what we’ve learned about proboscidea to date.

There is a video describing Lyuba’s discovery, and another explaining the remarkable details one can learn from mammoth tusks, both of which feature Dr. Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan (one of the original scientists who studied Lyuba). There are videos behind possible mammoth behavior, as well as the types of ancient vegetation discovered in soil specimens.

Life-sized models of Pleistocene fauna, including a short-faced bear, a saber-toothed cat and an enormous Columbian mammoth, give added depth to what most would only see in their fossil remains.

Columbian mammoth replica

[image of Columbian mammoth model, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

Artwork can be found throughout the exhibit. In a striking display of the diversity of these animals, a sculpture of a dwarf mammoth stands beside a bas-relief of an elephant, a mastodon and a Columbian mammoth. Full-sized fleshed-out sculptures of proboscidean heads—species that lived prior to mammoths and mastodons—extend from the wall.

And fossils—numerous teeth, skulls, tusks and bones—from mammoths, mastodons and other Pleistocene animals can be seen throughout. A cast of the Hyde Park mastodon from New York gives visitors a chance to walk around a complete fossil and see it from every angle. The replica of a mammoth fossil in-situ lies below a time-lapse video of what a particular landscape might have looked like from the time of that mammoth to the present day.

NHM-Mastodon

[image of Hyde Park mastodon cast, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

The exhibit is geared toward all ages, with activities for children through adults, and having prior knowledge of mammoths or paleontology is not a prerequisite.

“A key element of the exhibition for the family-focused audience is the interactive activities,” wrote Professor Lister, “such as feeling the weight of the food a mammoth ate in one day, trunk moving and tusk jousting.”

Given its popularity and the success with which it introduces a wide variety of people to the subject, one might wonder how the exhibit took shape.

“The idea originated from staff at the Field Museum several years ago. It was one of several ideas that came about during a process of brainstorming ideas,” Hilary Hansen explained. “The other topics that came about were George Washington Carver, natural disasters, and biomimicry. We tested these topics, along with many others, with visitors, the general public, museum members, and other museums around the country but those were the ones that rose to the top. It helped that the frozen baby mammoth, Luyba, had recently been found in Russia.”

“The whole process took about 3 years, I’d say,” she continued. “And as a whole, probably involved 60+ people to identify and conserve the specimens, develop the content with curators, design the exhibitry and graphics, source and license ages, build interactives, create videos, and build the show.”

“We did a lot of visitor studies and market research before we created [it]. I can’t say that we’ve received any feedback that startled us. It’s been very well received. In fact, the Times gave it 5 stars. That was wonderful.”

The exhibit has been seen from places as far as Chicago to Anchorage, from Boston to San Diego, but recently, from Edinburgh to the relatively nearby London.

When asked if the two recent locations in the UK were a coincidence, Hilary wrote, “We booked these two venues about 3 years ago. We were deliberate in finding 2 consecutive venues in the UK so they could share shipping expenses, which can be significant for an exhibition of this size. These two museums have worked together in the past so it was a smooth transition from one venue to the next. We book our exhibitions about 2 or 3 years out, though there are some exceptions.”

The exhibit has not changed since its inception. But, she wrote, “[s]ome venues have added graphics or specimens for their presentation, if it pertained to their own programming and collections.”

As an example, she added, “The Denver Museum of Nature and Science added a whole section about their Snowmass excavation site. But that didn’t continue on with the tour.”

Which makes the Natural History Museum an exciting place for this exhibit to temporarily reside. Proboscidean experts, Dr. Victoria Herridge and the aforementioned Professor Adrian Lister, are employed there and gave talks about their research. They have, in fact, resurrected the work of Dorothea Bate—an inspiring fossil hunter of the early 1900’s who discovered dwarf mammoth fossils in Crete—and have shed new light on her work.

NHM-DrHerridgeLyuba

[image of Lyuba and Dr. Victoria Herridge, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

“Other researchers must have visited the collections to look at the fossils,” Dr. Herridge explained, referring to the fossils Bate brought back to the museum, “but to the best of our knowledge we are the first to have published a taxonomic study based on the fossils themselves (rather than simply referring to Bate’s own papers or Osborn’s Proboscidea). This probably reflects the resurgence of interest in island dwarfing as a research topic in recent years.”

Dwarf mammoths—smaller versions of larger species, as their name implies—have also been referred to as ‘pygmy’ mammoths.

Is there a difference?

Dr. Herridge wrote, “The terms are used synonymously for the most part. I prefer to use ‘dwarf’ for island dwarf hippos because it helps to differentiate them from the extant hippo species Choeropsis liberiensis which has the common name ‘pygmy hippo’ — this species is not the same as the island dwarf hippos, and did not evolve to be small because of an island environment, and using dwarf helps to avoid confusion on this subject. Similarly, there is a cryptozoological belief in the existence of a ‘pygmy elephant’ in the jungle of West Africa, and using ‘dwarf elephant’ for small island elephants helps to avoid confusion here too. And to be consistent, I then also use dwarf for the small island mammoths and deer as well.”

Information on the Museum’s website indicates more work needs to be done.  It was explained that “[c]urrently there are no dates whatsoever associated with the Cretan mammoth fossils, and only a small number of dates for fossils on Crete in general. With colleagues from U. Bristol, U. Oxford and UCLA, Dr. Herridge and Professor Lister are currently working on a project to date many of the sites that Dorothea Bate excavated on Crete, including the dwarf mammoth locality. They have relocated the sites, and then taken samples for uranium series and optically stimulated luminescence dating. No new excavations for fossils have been carried out as yet, but if the results prove interesting more may be done in the future.”

NHM-ColumbianMammothSkull

[image of Columbian mammoth skull and tusks, courtesy of Natural History Museum, London]

 

“The exhibition will allow visitors to enter the amazing world of some of the largest creatures to have ever walked the earth,” concluded Professor Lister. “[Mammoths: Ice Age Giants] will take visitors on a journey from the time when these titans roamed the land through to today’s research into the causes of mammoth extinction, using new scientific research from the Natural History Museum.”

———————–

Watch a video of the exhibit! Mammoths: Ice Age Giants – “It’s not just the bones!” | Natural History Museum

More information from Dr. Victoria Herridge about dwarf mammoths! Identification of the world’s smallest mini mammoth | Natural History Museum

And learn about the possible causes of mammoth extinction from Dr. Adrian Lister! The Last of the Mammoths | Natural History Museum

Visit the Natural History Museum in London before 7 September 2014 to see this fascinating exhibit! http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/mammoths-ice-age-giants/

Watch Waking the Baby Mammoth from National Geographic (written by Adrienne Ciuffo) to learn more about Lyuba’s discovery: http://www.natgeotv.com/asia/waking-the-baby-mammoth/videos/waking-the-baby-mammoth

Order a copy of Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age by Professor Adrian Lister for more fascinating details about proboscidea: http://www.fireflybooks.com/bookdetail&ean=9781770853157

Dr. Victoria Herridge will have a new book published in 2015, The World’s Smallest Mammoth: http://bloomsburywildlife.com/victoria-herridge/

Extreme insular dwarfism evolved in a mammoth: Paper written by Dr. Herridge and Professor Lister, their research of dwarf mammoths on Crete, initiated by Dorothea Bate in the early 1900’s

A Mammuthus meridionalis-sized THANK YOU to Dr. Victoria Herridge, Professor Lister, Hilary Hansen and Helen Smith for their time, their help and their generous responses to my questions! What a great honor and a true pleasure!!

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VI International Conference on Mammoths and Their Relatives – May 2014!

Every three to four years, mammoth experts and scientists from all over the world congregate for several days to discuss the most recent findings and cutting-edge discoveries.

This year, that event takes place in Greece.

This location is particularly fitting, not only for its exciting mammoth and mastodon finds (including the world’s largest tusks found to-date), but also because the name of the mammalian Order to which mammoths belong is derived from a Greek word: proboskis (προβοσκίδα).

The name Proboscidea–from proboscis (trunk)—aptly describes some of its more popular members: today’s elephants and yesterday’s mastodons and mammoths.

This marks the 6th time this conference has been held.  It is not an annual event, nor is it necessarily held in the same location or on the same continent.

This year’s honorary president is a US-based scientist: Dr. Larry Agenbroad, from the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs, South Dakota.

Dr. Larry Agenbroad

(Image of Dr. Larry Agenbroad with short-faced bear replica, courtesy of Dr. Larry Agenbroad)

The president of the conference is Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Thessaloniki, and one of the team of paleontologists who excavated the largest tusks mentioned above.

The vice president is Dr. George Theodorou, Professor of Palaeontology and Stratigraphy at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

The list of scientists and experts involved in this event is both impressive and exciting.  Among so many others, (there were too many to mention here, but you can find them at this link) some of the participating specialists are:

  • Dr. Paul Bahn, British archaeologist and co-author of Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age with Dr. Adrian Lister;
  • Dr. Daniel Fisher, Professor at the University of Michigan, Curator and Director at the Museum of Paleontology, Michigan, mammoth-tusk expert, and one of the original scientists to study Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth found to-date;
  • Dr. Victoria Herridge of the Natural History Museum, London and dwarf mammoth expert;
  • Dr. Frédéric Lacombat, paleontologist at the Musée Crozatier, France, and president of the Vth International Mammoth Conference, 2010;
  • Dr. Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum, London and author of the two most comprehensive books on mammoths published in English;
  • Dick Mol, mammoth expert from the Netherlands who has been involved in mammoth research and discoveries for decades, and one of the paleontologists who excavated the tusks in Greece with Dr. Tsoukala;
  • Dr. Doris Nagel of the Institute of Palaeontology, University of Vienna;
  • Dr. Maria Rita Palombo of the Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza;
  • Dr. Alexei Tikhonov, Deputy Director of the Zoological Institute, St. Petersburg,  Scientific Secretary of the Mammoth Committee, Russian Academy of Sciences, and also one of the scientists who originally studied Lyuba;
  • Dr. Haowen Tong, Adjunct Professor of the Graduate University, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista

(Image of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista, Municipality of Voion, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)

Evangelos Vlachos, a PhD student at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and one of the many organizers of the event very generously responded to my questions.

———————————————

1. What will your PhD be in and what is your doctoral thesis? How did you become involved in the Mammoth Conference?

I am doing my PhD on Vertebrate Paleontology, specifically on the study of turtles and tortoises from Greece.

But what is a “turtle guy” doing at the Mammoth Conference?

Well, being part of Evangelia Tsoukala’s team includes excavating for proboscideans, including some of the biggest ever lived. In my first years of study, I considered working with fossil proboscideans, but later I changed to the study of chelonians.

My first experience with the Mammoth Conference was at the Vth Mammoth Conference in Le Puy-en-Velay, France in 2010.  In Le Puy, the Greek side participated with many oral and poster presentations, and the scientific community had the chance to get familiar with the exciting proboscidean findings from Greece.

Poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team

[Image of poster presentations of the Greek-Dutch team during the Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

2. How wonderful that the Mammoth Conference is held in Greece this year! How was the decision to hold it in Greece made?

Indeed, it is wonderful, but it was sudden!

Normally, at the end of each conference, the Organizing Committee examines all of the available proposals and decides where the next Mammoth Conference will be held.

In Le Puy, the Organizing Committee decided that Anchorage, Alaska would host the VIth Mammoth Conference in May 2013. Although the scientific community was excited to visit this remote place, which has played an important role in the history of the mammoths, things didn’t work out.

In the beginning of 2014, new proposals were requested. Within a few days, we filed a proposal to host the next conference in the historic towns of West Macedonia, Grevena and Siatista, which have brilliant collections of fossil proboscideans.

Luckily, our proposal was accepted, and we are honored to host the next conference in Greece.

Dutch artist Remie Bakker

[Children making their own mammoth under the guidance of the Dutch artist Remie Bakker, during the opening ceremony of the Historical Paleontological Collection of Siatista. Similar events are going to be held during the conference (2011, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

3. Who organizes this conference and who determines the president of the conference? (Do the organizers change each year?)

The organization of the conference is the responsibility of the Organizing Committee.

Some members are regular; they have been there since 1995 when the first conference was held in Saint Petersburg.

Specialists like Dick Mol provide the experience of organizing a Mammoth Conference and access to the network of the proboscidean scientific community.

Many people from the host country itself are involved to make sure that everything will be organized in detail. The organizers of the conference are supported by the Scientific Committee: specialists of various topics related to the conference. Their role is to consult the committee in scientific matters and to serve as reviewers of the abstracts and papers submitted to the conference.

This year, we are privileged to have a large Scientific Committee of 43 specialists from all fields related to proboscidean study. Moreover, in this conference, many young scientists are included in the Scientific Committee, which is very important for us. One of the goals of this conference is to ensure that the study of proboscideans will not only have a glorious past, but a great future as well.

4. Who typically attends this conference? Do you have an idea of how many people will be attending this year?

The Mammoth Conference attracts the interest of scientists from many different fields, but all joined by the interest of promoting knowledge surrounding proboscidean evolution.

Among the numerous participants, you will find paleontologists presenting new findings that improve our knowledge of the fossil record; geneticists examining the DNA of present-day elephants and from the frozen carcasses of the woolly mammoths; scientists applying new techniques like stable isotope and dental microwear analysis on proboscidean molars; archaeologists investigating the interaction between humans and proboscideans.

This is not all. At each conference, something new comes up!

Early registration for the participants closed on 31th of January 2014.

The interest of the proboscidean community in the VIth ICMR was enormous and far exceeded the expectations of the Organizing Committee!

We received more than 150 registrations from all corners of the world: from Cape Town, South Africa in the South to Stockholm, Sweden in the North; from Wollongong, Australia in the Southeast to Edmonton, Canada in the Northwest; from Kusatsu, Japan in the East to Nevada in the West; from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in South America to Yakutsk in Siberia. In total, all the participants will have to travel more than 11 times the circumference of Earth to come to Grevena and Siatista!

Mammoth Conference Global Participants

 (Geographic representation of this year’s Mammoth Conference participants, image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR))

5. How does one decide what topics and papers will be discussed?

The Organizing Committee, in close co-operation with the Scientific Committee, set an initial number of topics to be discussed in the conference. They have to summarize the current open questions in the field.

Some of the topics, however, are “classical,” we could say, such as the information from soft tissues from the frozen carcasses, or the interaction between humans and mammoths.

At the same time, in every conference we are trying to promote the regional research by proposing topics that could stimulate researchers to come up with ideas. For example, in our conference, we are particularly interested in the “primitive” probiscidean proboscidean forms–before the appearance of mammoths–like the mastodons or gomphotheres.

Sometimes, the participants are able to propose new topics of interest. This was the case with our Brazilian colleagues, who suggested we have a session on extinct South American proboscideans that, until recently, have been relatively unknown.

6. What do you think is the most exciting part of the Mammoth Conference?

As a young scientist, the most exciting part is definitely to get to know all the well-known specialists in this field and exchange ideas with them.

Standing up in front of a well-qualified audience and presenting your ideas is a great challenge. But the experience you get is unique.

Presentations - Vth ICMR

[Presenting in front of the world’s leading experts (Vth ICMR in Le-Puy-en-Velay, France, 2010, picture credits V. Makridis), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

 

In the end, when you are returning to your country, you feel overwhelmed by the information you have received. But as the days go by, ideas start to form and with the experience gained by attending an International Conference, you can make good progress on your studies.

Science is not only reading and writing, but communicating your ideas.

Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon

[Preparing a plaster jacket for a partial femur of a mastodon. Now this specimen is part of the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia (2012, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

Moreover, it is always exciting to take part in the field trips of the Conference.

In our conference, not only we will visit all of the impressive sites in Northern Greece, like Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida, but we have planned a unique post-conference field trip. The participants will travel to the remote island of Tilos where the last European elephants lived, as dwarf forms, in the Charkadio Cave. To reach this island, we will go through Athens and the world famous site of Pikermi.

Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques

 

[Excavating in site Milia-4 using rope techniques. One of the sites that the participants will visit during the Field Sessions of the conference (2010, picture credits W. van Logchem), image courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)]

 

7. Are there any challenges to organizing or hosting the Mammoth Conference?

One word: logistics.

The amount of work needed to arrange everything–the registrations, the abstracts, transportation and accommodation, the field trips–is enormous. In those cases, especially when you have so many people from different countries and cultures, you need to pay attention to every detail to make sure that all will go according to plan.

But the Organizing Committee is working hard, night and day, to extend an example of traditional Greek hospitality to everyone involved!
8. Is there anything else that you would want people to know?

Latest News:

This week, members of the Organizing Committee visited the places where the conference will take place (Grevena, Milia, Siatista and Ptolemaida) and inspected all venues, exhibition and facilities. At the moment, everything is going according to plan and the Organizing Committee works day and night to make a wonderful conference for the participants.

 Paleontological Exhibition of Milia

(Image of the the Paleontological Exhibition of Milia, Municipality of Grevena, courtesy of the OC of the VIth ICMR)

———————————————

I would like to extend an Archelon ischyros-sized thank you to Evangelos Vlachos for his lightning quick responses to my emails, his generosity and his detailed answers! 

When he mentions that the Organizing Committee works night-and-day for this conference, he is not kidding. Some of our emails were exchanged at 3am his time!  

Σας ευχαριστούμε!

Thank you, as well, to Dr. Evangelia Tsoukala and to Dick Mol, who also generously shared their time for this post (behind the scenes)!

Please check out the VI International Conference website:  www.mammothconference.com

You can follow them on Twitter! @mammoths2014 / #mammoths2014

Videos on YouTube related to the Conference and excavating the world’s longest tusks from the mastodon in Greece!

a. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=caDUsZHehyY&list=UUJJtPaGIosoQiSHtBSyQ7RA&feature=c4-overview

(The video above is multilingual.)

b. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCMDHJSTYZE&list=LLIWT11-xMeFd4CEztS2eB9g

c. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WJPB4Vdy70A&list=LLIWT11-xMeFd4CEztS2eB9g

It has been my great honor to have connected previously with two of the many mammoth experts listed above:

Dr. Daniel Fisher:

https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/mammoth-article-qa-dr-daniel-fisher-renowned-paleontologist/

Dr. Larry Agenbroad:

https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/the-mammoth-site-and-dr-larry-agenbroad-renowned-paleontologist/

TX Natural Science Center – Events planned for National Fossil Day

Celebrating its 4th National Fossil Day, the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin offers events for children, the general public and teachers.

This museum is the exhibit hall of the Texas Natural Science Center (TNSC) at the University of Texas at Austin.  The museum and scientific collections that are part of TNSC work together to create awareness, understanding and appreciation of the past, present and future of biological diversity, especially that of the state of Texas.

Within TNSC are the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory, the Non-Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory and the Texas Natural History CollectionsTNSC’s website states, “All exhibits and education/outreach programs are based on the Center’s collection of 6 million specimens, most of which are from Texas…”

Although not all of the specimens are fossils or from Texas, that number speaks to a wealth of natural resources and research programs and opportunities.

“[W]e in the Austin area are fortunate to be surrounded by fossiliferous Cretaceous limestone, which is the source of many discoveries of fossils by the community,” explained Dr. Pamela R. Owen, Senior Biodiversity Educator at TNSC.

Two fossils on exhibit and found in Texas are the Texas Pterosaur, described by the TNSC website as “the largest flying creature ever found”, and the Mosasaur, a substantial sea creature.  (A recent study of a Mosasaur fossil in Jordan found that they may have had shark tails. You can read about that here: http://phys.org/news/2013-09-mosasaur-fossil-early-lizards-tails.html)

Oldest Fossils

When asked to name the oldest fossil in its collection, Dr. Owen said, “We have a sectioned stromatolite formed by Precambrian cyanobacteria from Minnesota on exhibit at Texas Memorial Museum.”

Stromatolites are layered structures, most of which were built by cyanobacteria (aquatic photosynthetic bacteria with a long evolutionary history). These fossils are, in a way, the footprints of the activity of cyanobacteria, although some have been found that do have the bacteria trapped within them. Stromatolites date as far back as 3.5 billion years.

Chris Sagebiel, Collections Manager of the Vertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (VPL), named two different fossils as the oldest in the VPL Collection.

“Geologically speaking,” he wrote, “our oldest specimens are from Ordovician age rocks in the Arbuckle Mountains in Oklahoma.”

The Ordovician age, as we understand it today, was largely populated with sea creatures. There is evidence of primitive plants and life on land toward the end of the Ordovician.  Horseshoe crabs—creatures we can see now on East Coast shores—are thought to have begun during this period.

“Our collection is home to one of the oldest bony fossils: a fragmentary skull and some scales from Eriptychius, a jawless fish that lived about 450 million years ago.”

Eriptychius,” he continued, “is not terribly well understood. What has been found are only bits of skull and scales. Our Eriptychius fossils are not fully prepped out of the rock, so unless you were looking for Eriptychius fossils, the specimens look like any other rock. Some of the isolated scales have been cut for thin sections. Typically, a 30 micron thick section is taken from the scale to look at the micro-structure of the bone and scales. We do know that they had external armor, at least forming a head shield. They may also have been one of the earliest animals with enamel.”

Below are two images of the Eriptychius fossil and the section he described:

Eriptychius from Chris Sagebiel Eriptychius section from Chris Sagebiel

“…[T]he fossil is just the dark gray bit in the very center of the photo directly across from my thumb and directly below my index fingertip.”

“In terms of human years,” he explained, “the oldest is the Cope-Cummins fossil collection, collected in the early 1890s. Cummins was an itinerant preacher and geologist who collected fossils as part of a larger state geological survey that was conducted under the supervision of Edwin T. Dumble. Most of the fossils were sent back east to noted paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope, who reported on these for the Dumble survey report and elsewhere.”

He sent the image of the lower molars of Equus conversidens below:

Cope-Cummins from Chris Sagebiel

2012 National Fossil Day – Mammoths!

Last year, National Fossil Day events at the TX Memorial Museum centered around mammoths. The theme reflected the 2012 artwork forthat day by the National Park Service.

NFD 2012 Logo

[image of 2012 National Fossil Day, courtesy of the National Fossil Day website]

“My gallery talk,” Dr. Owen wrote in an email, describing her ‘Meet the Mammoths’ presentation, “was next to our Ice Age exhibit in the Hall of Geology and Paleontology, and I set up my table adjacent to the skull and tusks of a Columbian mammoth. That afternoon I had several family groups in attendance at each of my two scheduled presentations, so the energy level was pretty high and the kids all wanted to share their knowledge about mammoths (and the fact that they have seen at least one of the Ice Age movies!)

“We talked about the differences between Columbian mammoths and woolly mammoths and everyone had a chance to gently feel a molar from each species.  I also had some large tusk and bone fragments for the visitors to see and feel.”

2013 National Fossil Day – Fossil ID’s, Teacher Workshops, and Common Misconceptions

Teachers are able to participate in workshops hosted the TX Memorial Museum.  One of the workshops notes that there will be a discussion about “common misconceptions about the fossil record.”

Dr. Owen explained, “First of all, fossils are relatively rare; most organisms are not preserved after death.  The remains of organisms stand a better chance of fossilization if they are rapidly buried by sediment.  And not all fossils are preserved or even discovered.   But the fossil record is complete enough to document evolutionary events and changes in biodiversity over millions of years.”

“One misconception,” she continued, “is that all fossils are simply impressions or organisms ‘turned to stone.’  Fossilization processes vary, resulting in differences in preservation.  For example, wood, bone and shell can be altered by mineralizing solutions.  Minerals in the water moving through sediment can fill pore spaces or completely replace the original material.  Fossils preserved in this manner include ‘petrified wood’, pyritized sea shells, and dinosaur bone.  Sometimes organic remains are preserved by compression, compaction and/or carbonization.  Coal is formed from ancient plants by these fossilization processes.  On the other end of the spectrum, we have fossils that are essentially unaltered, such as the frozen mammoths discovered in Siberia.”

“In the workshop, we will also discuss misconceptions about purported ‘gaps’ in the fossil record, radiometric dating of fossils and the formation of fossil fuels.”

(For more information regarding Lyuba, the best preserved baby mammoth found in Siberia to-date, please see this post: https://mostlymammoths.wordpress.com/2013/09/10/mammoth-article-qa-dr-daniel-fisher-renowned-paleontologist/)

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What prompted you into a career in paleontology?

Dr. Pamela Owen:

I have always been interested in natural history, and as a child, I did go through a “dinosaur phase” but mammals have always held my fascination.  I did not take a paleontological path in my studies until I started work on my master’s degree in biology.  My thesis research was on the neck morphology of saber-toothed cats, American “lions”, coyotes and dire wolves at the Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries (at the infamous La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, California.  More recently I have been focusing on badgers.  I described and named a new species of extinct American badger as part of my studies for the Ph.D.  I remain very interested in the evolutionary history of mammalian predators and enjoy my career as a museum scientist and educator.

Chris Sagebiel:

I really couldn’t say how I became a paleontologist. I just have always been one. We had a farm with fossil bivalves and such poking out of the rocks. Several family members have degrees in geology, though none of them are practicing geologists, we always talk about geology. However, I was in my senior year of college before it dawned on me that I could make a career in paleontology. I was lucky that a spot was open for me in the graduate program at UT, and just happened to have a museum job open up when I completed my graduate degree.

If you are in the Austin area, please do not miss out on these events or the chance to see the fossils at the TX Memorial Museum!

Fossil Identifications at the Paleo Lab: 9 a.m.–noon and 2-4 p.m. Fossil Dig Pit: Young paleontologists can make their own discoveries from 2-4 p.m. Teacher Workshop (pre-registration required): Deep Time Explorations, 6-9 p.m. For more information send an email to Pamela R. Owen or call her at 512-232-5511. http://www.utexas.edu/tmm/events/nfd/ http://www.utexas.edu/tmm/education/profdev/deep-time/index.html

Many, many thanks to Dr. Pamela Owen and Chris Sagebiel!

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/