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.

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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)

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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/

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/