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.”


[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.


[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.



[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:

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.


[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.



[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.


[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.


[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.”


[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!

Watch Waking the Baby Mammoth from National Geographic (written by Adrienne Ciuffo) to learn more about Lyuba’s discovery:

Order a copy of Mammoths and Mastodons of the Ice Age by Professor Adrian Lister for more fascinating details about proboscidea:

Dr. Victoria Herridge will have a new book published in 2015, The World’s Smallest Mammoth:

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!!

Want to Recreate a Mammoth? Some Legal Food for Thought

Contemplating recreating a mammoth?

You’re not the first.

The discussion around recreating extinct species (or “de-extinction”) is not new.

But today that concept is becoming rapidly less abstract and considerably closer to reality.

Some scientists have openly admitted to working on recreating extinct species, and some advocate vocally for de-extinction research. A few of these scientists are in our backyard: Dr. George Church is a geneticist at Harvard who openly advocates for the recreation of extinct species. Revive & Restore, part of the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco, has de-extinction as part of its stated mission. Others are much further: Hwang Woo-Suk’s Sooam Biotech Research Foundation of Korea signed an agreement with the North-Eastern Federal University in Russia to recreate a mammoth within a specific set of time. The topic has gained so much momentum that it was the focus of a TED discussion on de-extinction in DC last March, hosted by Revive & Restore in partnership with TED and National Geographic.

The authors of “How to Permit Your Mammoth”, published in the January edition (Vol.33) of the Stanford Environmental Law Journal, take an engaging look at the potential legal implications of bringing an extinct species back to life.

This highly readable and incredibly fascinating piece is the work of three people: Norman Carlin, Partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, LLP in San Francisco, Ilan Wurman, Law Clerk to Judge Jerry Smith, and Tamara Zakim, former Associate at Pillsbury Winthrop.

The focus of their article is the law, not the ethics behind such a venture.

In the very beginning, they state that the recreated entity would not be an exact replica of the extinct species. It would, instead, be a “facsimile” of the original, due entirely to the limits inherent within the science of de-extinction.

The key points to take away from this discussion, and which will be relevant for the legal analysis which follows, are these: No ‘resurrected’ species would be an exact copy of the original extinct species. With all methods, the results will to some degree be facsimiles or likenesses of the original species…For purposes of the law, it may make most sense to treat such facsimiles both as new creations altogether…yet also as recreations, in a sense.  They would not represent the true revival of an extinct species, but nonetheless would be living representatives of at least a portion of the range of genetic variation that once constituted that species.

Currently, the known de-extinction methods are:

1. somatic cell nuclear transfer,
2. genetic engineering,
3. and artificial selection and “back-breeding”.


In very broad strokes, somatic cell nuclear transfer relies on the egg of an existing species—one that is closely related to the extinct species—and the removal of that egg’s nuclear DNA. The nuclear DNA of the extinct species is added into the host egg, and the embryo is induced to develop within the living species.

Genetic engineering, again in broad strokes, relies on fragmented DNA sequences that can be harvested from specimens in museum collections. In a nod to the fictional “Jurassic Park”, this method would insert DNA fragments from the extinct species into the DNA sequence of closely-related living species.

Artificial selection involves breeding those living species that are descended from or related to that of the extinct species and may retain some genetic variation characteristic of the extinct species. Through generation after generation of selective breeding, the goal is to bring about a species that resembles that of its long-lost genetic cousin or ancestor.

Finally, “back-breeding” is a form of artificial selection that refers to the use of ancestral traits within a living species. In other words, one would selectively breed a species to enhance the parts of its genome that it shares with extinct species. Jack Horner writes about this in “How to Build a Dinosaur” with James Gorman. In it, he suggests that chickens are modern descendants of dinosaurs. By stimulating certain ancient genes and suppressing others, he believes we can recreate a dinosaur.

All of these scientific methods, according to Carlin, Wurman and Zakim, play an important role in terms of what laws may affect the facsimile.

Should it be classified as an “endangered species”? And if so, does it fall under the protection of the Endangered Species Act (ESA)?

Or is it a genetically modified organism (GMO), and therefore subject to GMO regulation and patent law?

The authors assert that “the ultimate objective of de-extinction efforts is not to produce laboratory curiosities, but to restore lost species to independent existence in nature.”

Imagine, then, a herd of Columbian mammoths, enormous animals that need substantial room and sustenance. How would the herd affect the existing ecosystem and vice versa? What kind of competition—if any—would arise for natural resources in the area in which they now live?

Once cannot read this piece, with the questions it inevitably provokes, without a keen sense of wonder and awe.

The article does mention the limits of existing laws, particularly regarding the Endangered Species Act.

Needless to say, the ESA was intended to protect living endangered species. The drafters of the ESA, which was adopted in 1973, could not have anticipated the prospect of de-extinction with twenty-first century genetic technology. Thus, de-extinction presents a classic case of dynamic statutory interpretation, which arises out of a “need for practical accommodation of the [statutory] directive to new circumstances.”

Which leads one to wonder–particularly if one is without legal expertise–why new rules would not be the first objective.

“Sometimes rules need to be changed,” responded Ilan Wurman in an email, “when there is no way to interpret existing laws in a way that effects that change. In those situations we do, indeed, need new rules.”

“Dynamic statutory interpretation has a somewhat more narrow meaning [than simply interpreting or defining laws differently],” he continued. “Let’s say a statute in 1850 was written to say, ‘All eligible voters shall constitute jury pool from which they may be called to serve on a jury.’ At the time, only men could vote, and so women were excluded from this jury pool. But the year is now 1950 — how do we interpret the statute? At the time it was written, it excluded women; but today women can vote. Thus, we ‘dynamically’ interpret ‘eligible voter’ to include certain facts or circumstances that did not exist at the time but which fall within the meaning of the term. We would include women within its meaning.”

The article discusses the recreation of species whose extinction was relatively recent, such as passenger pigeons.

When it comes to something such as a mammoth, however, the possibility of finding viable DNA seems greater in countries outside of the US. Russia has been home to recent exciting discoveries along this line.

“We excluded international law,” wrote Wurman, “because we needed to keep the piece at a manageable length, but also because none of us has any particular familiarity with international law. But there would certainly be some implications for international law as well.”

Norman Carlin emphasized Wurman’s assertion about the length of the article.

“I was surprised,” he wrote, “by how much we ended up finding to say, once we dug deeply into the questions raised by de-extinction. Before we got started, I initially thought the piece would be about half the length it turned out to be.”

When asked about other surprises to writing this piece, Wurman had this to say: “The only surprise was just how significant this ‘facsimile’ concept turned out to be. The whole piece turned on it. Consider the interesting tension it creates — it might be a GMO, and thus worthy of patent protection; but if it’s a GMO doesn’t that mean the ESA doesn’t apply? But surely the whole point of recreating these species is to protect them — so the ESA should apply. A lot of fun legal issue arose as a result of this concept.”

“Norman provided the bulk of the scientific background,” Wurman continued. “He and Tamara worked on the implications under NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act), and I teased out the initial implications for patent law and the ESA (Endangered Species Act). After that, we all had a hand in the entire piece and in putting the piece together in a coherent fashion.”

“Norman had been reading about de-extinction efforts and, given his scientific background as well as his legal background, suspected that there might be something to write on the topic. Our initial model was a rather famous piece from the New York Law Journal on the legal implications of protecting against Near Earth Objects.”

Should someone successfully recreate an extinct species, would any of the three be willing to be part of its legal team?

“I think Norman would be thrilled if he got called on to do some of the legal leg work on this issue in the future,” Wurman offered.

If there is one thing human history has shown, it is that what is once thought impossible, eventually, be it centuries or millennia down the road, becomes a reality.

So although there are innumerable reasons—many of them ethical and scientific—why we are not able to recreate extinct species now, it is not inconceivable that the future might indeed open that door.

And if it does, “How to Permit Your Mammoth” will equip us with a legal starting point.


You can read the full article here:

Ilan Wurman and Norman Carlin were *remarkably generous* with their time and their help, and I cannot thank either of them enough.