Mammoth Hunters Put Hopes on Ice

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Richard Stone
2001-01-08 19:00
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In an anticlimactic ending to last year's woolly mammoth excavation drama, a block of permanently frozen ground hewn from the Siberian tundra appears to contain only scattered remains rather than a complete carcass. But researchers say that the team's brute force method of hauling remains to a lab while still frozen holds promise for recovering more-intact specimens from future expeditions.

Last year, a team led by Bernard Buigues, a Paris-based North Pole tour operator, chiseled the 23-ton block from the Taimyr Peninsula and airlifted it by helicopter hundreds of kilometers to the northern Siberian town of Khatanga. The previous year, Buigues had excavated the skull of the 20,380-year-old male mammoth, nicknamed "Jarkov" after the family of indigenous Dolgans who had found its tusks sticking out of the snow. Ground-penetrating radar readings hinted that substantial portions of the carcass remained underground. But after inspecting the block, a Russian project scientist argued that it was unlikely to harbor mammoth remains (Science, 29 October 1999, p. 876).

After moving the block into a tunnel in Khatanga used to store reindeer meat and fish, Buigues and company began thawing it with hair dryers. Near the top of the block they found three thoracic vertebrae, two of which lay in anatomical position, and a pair of ribs lying haphazardly, like crossbones. But the bones were devoid of flesh. Indeed, the only flesh uncovered during the final thawing session was a 10-centimeter-long strip of tissue that looked like beef jerky.

The denouement comes as no surprise to many. But the revelation that the block does not contain a whole mammoth has drawn ridicule from some quarters. An editorial in the 6 January edition of The Times of London even suggested that the whole episode was a hoax. "Prehistoric hoaxes offer very good sport, as our dalliances with Piltdown man have long proven," The Times said. Officials from the Discovery Channel, which sponsored the expedition, and project scientists reject that characterization.

Buigues's team takes some consolation from having succeeded in airlifting the remains, still frozen in place, to an environment where they could be thawed under controlled conditions. "Whether or not this mammoth is the epitome of frozen mammoths is immaterial," says Larry Agenbroad, a geologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "We can now go out and get more."

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