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CT Reveals Secrets Of 40,000-Year-Old Mammoths

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CT scans of two 40,000-year-old but nearly intact woolly mammoth mummies have given paleontologists a wealth of insights about the extinct elephant species to which they belong.

The frozen, mummified female carcasses were found in 2007 and 2008, 3,000 miles apart, in Siberia. They were just babies; “Khroma” was slightly less than two months old and “Lyuba” a month old when they died. Because of the specimens’ remarkable state of preservation, most typical methods of study have been ruled out as too damaging. So scientists turned to imaging.

Researchers used medical scanners in Japan, France, and the United States to examine the calves. The scientists even managed to get a full-body scan of Lyuba, the smaller specimen, by employing an industrial Ford Motor Company machine designed to look for flaws in vehicle transmissions. The researchers also used micro–CT scans of the teeth to determine the ages of the animals at death by counting daily growth layers inside the teeth.

Daniel C. Fisher, PhD, lead author of an article about the research in the July issue of the Journal of Paleontology, is thrilled with what the images revealed:

This is the first time anyone’s been able to do a comparative study of the skeletal development of two baby mammoths of known age. This allowed us to document the changes that occur as the mammoth body develops. And since they are both essentially complete skeletons, they can be thought of as Rosetta stones that will help us interpret all the isolated baby mammoth bones that show up at other localities.

Dr. Fisher is the Claude W. Hibbard Collegiate Professor of Paleontology at the University of Michigan and director of the university’s Museum of Paleontology. He was quoted in a university news release.

Scientists have teased quite a bit of data from the scans. For example, Khroma’s skull is smaller than that of a newborn modern-day elephant, suggesting that mammoths had a shorter gestation period. And the dental studies indicated that both mammoths were born in the spring.

“These two exquisitely preserved baby mammoths are like two snapshots in time,” said Zachary T. Calamari, a co-author of the article and a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “We can use them to understand how factors like location and age influenced the way mammoths grew into the huge adults that captivate us today.”

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