In the first-ever operation of its kind, scientists working in Siberia have excavated a huge chunk of permanently frozen soil containing the remains of a 23,000-year-old woolly mammoth. On 17 October they airlifted the 22-ton block of tundra to a cavern hewed from the ice on Russia's Taimyr Peninsula, where scientists plan to thaw the soil to study what's left of the extinct beast inside--and perhaps even mount an effort to clone it. In finds earlier this century, mammoth carcasses quickly spoiled after being exposed to above-freezing temperatures. This time, by keeping the remains at subzero temperatures for as long as possible, scientists hope to extract well-preserved DNA as well as look for bacteria or viruses that could have contributed to the creature's death.
On an expedition above the Arctic Circle 2 years ago, French explorer Bernard Buigues was led to a site where native Dolgans, nomadic herders, earlier had come across two huge tusks jutting from the ground. Buigues found mammoth hair at the site and last year, using ground-penetrating radar, located several large shapes buried in the frozen earth. He then organized a $2 million expedition--funded largely by the Discovery Channel, which is preparing a documentary on the Siberian adventure to air next spring--to excavate the presumed carcass, called the Jarkov mammoth after the local family that found the tusks. Officially, Buigues is now leasing the mammoth from Russian authorities, according to a Discovery spokesperson.
Starting work last month in sometimes bitterly cold, windy conditions, Dolgan workers used jackhammers to carve around and under the permafrost block thought to contain the mammoth, then slid an iron support beneath it. They prepared to haul it out of the ground by helicopter. At first the permafrost was going nowhere. "It seemed impossible to lift it," says Buigues. At last the block, with the two original tusks jutting out for effect, rose up into a clear blue sky. It was then flown more than 300 kilometers to the Taimyr capital, Khatanga, for storage over winter in an ice cave with a constant temperature of about 15 degrees Celsius below zero.
Starting next spring, scientists plan to use blow dryers to thaw the soil and find out how much of the mammoth--known from its tusks to be a male--might be inside. "We have not yet seen any of the flesh or organs or so on," says paleontologist Larry Agenbroad of Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, who participated in the expedition. But he says the radar images suggest that substantial portions of the mammoth may remain. The images, he adds, also revealed several other shapes over a wider area that appear to be woolly rhinos and other large Ice Age animals. However, another expedition scientist says he doubts that the block itself contains a whole mammoth. Alexei Tikhonov of the Institute of Zoology in St. Petersburg, Russia, told Reuters that he expects the permafrost will yield little more than wool, bones, and skin.
If researchers do find well-preserved sperm or other cells containing viable DNA, they may undertake experiments to resurrect the species by either injecting the sperm in the egg of a close relative--the Asian elephant--to try to create a hybrid, or perhaps even attempt to clone a pure mammoth by fusing the nucleus of a mammoth cell with an elephant egg cell stripped of its DNA. According to Agenbroad, a reputable U.S. lab experienced in elephant breeding has already expressed interest in such a project. If no decent tissue is recovered, scientists expect at least to learn more about the conditions in which the mammoth lived. They already found intact plant material underneath the permafrost block indicating it died near a lake or pond.