Scans became a mammoth project

February 22, 2010 By Mark Johnson

Lyuba was not typical of the subjects Jason Polzin examines with X-ray, CT or MRI machines at GE Healthcare.

She had slightly shriveled skin the color of infield dirt. Her eyes were frozen shut, her trunk curled. Her 110-pound body carried a faint whiff of .

In truth, she looked quite good for a 42,000-year-old, especially one who apparently died after sinking into mud and suffocating.

To her admirers in the scientific world, Lyuba is the best-preserved ever discovered. To Polzin's two children, she was of considerably greater interest than the human volunteers and containers of fluid Dad had examined in 15 years at GE.

"I think every kid growing up is interested in dinosaurs and mammoths, that kind of thing," Polzin, GE Healthcare's chief technology leader, said Thursday. "My kids think this is the coolest thing I've ever done since I've been at GE."

Lyuba, a month-old baby at the time of her death, was discovered in 2007 by a reindeer herder searching for firewood in far northwestern Siberia. The herder spotted Lyuba in and named her after his wife.

With an abundance of sophisticated equipment, GE Healthcare in Waukesha, Wis., offered a unique opportunity last week for the scientists who have been pouring over the mammoth on loan for seven months to Chicago's Field Museum. It would be difficult to reserve time with the CTs and MRIs at hospitals, but for the mammoth's one day in Waukesha she had the machines to herself.

As an X-ray scanned Lyuba's modest frame, a dozen people watched through an observation window; cameras flashed and video cameras recorded the scene.

And Daniel Fisher, a University of Michigan professor who has studied mammoths for 30 years, marveled at her.

"There's a sort of awe-struck feeling to see her," he said. "For years I worked on skeletons and teeth and , always having to infer what the full shape was. And then -- there it is!"

When Fisher first viewed Lyuba she did not smell as terrible as one might imagine. "A little sour," was how he described her. "A little off."

Although her soft tissue had dried somewhat, the mammoth was surprisingly well-preserved.

"When we opened her up in St. Petersburg (Russia), we saw inside her stomach," Fisher said. "Her stomach was filled with her mother's milk."

Granted 42,000 years can take a toll on milk, and what they found in Lyuba's stomach was "chemically more like fine curd cottage cheese," Fisher said.

So far, scientists have found evidence from Lyuba that mammoths had something called brown fat at the back of the neck. While typical white fat helps allow calories to be stored, brown fat serves a purpose closer to coal in a furnace. When the body senses cold it sends a signal to the brown fat, Fisher explained, and the brown fat starts a metabolic sequence that produces heat and warms the blood.

The scientists studying Lyuba also have been trying to determine what caused her death. As best they can tell, she became trapped in mud along a river bank. As she struggled, her trunk filled with silt. Death appears to have been accidental.

The cause of death is important because the scientists hope to find that Lyuba was not ill or poorly developed, factors that might negate her value as a normal mammoth specimen.

Polzin knew such questions would make for interesting dinner table talk with his children, 11-year-old Bennett and Maggie, 7.

"It's really exciting," he said, "to think you're in the middle of helping to understand more about mammoths, what they're like when they're young, how rapidly they mature and grow."

By nightfall, Lyuba would be in her crate, in a van headed back to the Field Museum.

Explore further: Baby mammoth preserved in frozen soil heads to Chicago

0 shares

Related Stories

Baby mammoth preserved in frozen soil heads to Chicago

October 4, 2009

Sucked to her death in a muddy river bed, a baby woolly mammoth spent 40,000 years frozen in the Siberian permafrost where her body was so perfectly preserved traces of her mother's milk remained in her belly.

Mammoth moms heavily invested in offspring

October 21, 2005

Details about the life of a young woolly mammoth that died thousands of years ago are emerging from a study of the animal's fossil tusk. One intriguing finding: the calf nursed from its mother six or more years, apparently ...

Adults, especially women, have calorie-burning 'brown fat'

June 11, 2009

Keeping your baby fat turns out to be a good thing, as long as it is "brown fat"—the kind that burns calories, according to a study that found adults have much more of this type of fat than previously thought.

Researchers find dinosaur clues in fat

April 23, 2008

A team of researchers at New York Medical College has discovered why birds, unlike mammals, lack a tissue that is specialized to generate heat. A paper published April 21, 2008 in the online peer-reviewed journal BMC Biology ...

Recommended for you

Sensual fresco discovered in ancient Pompeii bedroom

November 19, 2018

Archaeologists have found a fresco in an ancient Pompeii bedroom that depicts a sensual scene of the Roman god Jupiter, disguised as a swan, and a legendary queen of Sparta from Greek mythology.

Excavators find tombs buried in Bolivia 500 years ago

November 17, 2018

Archaeologists say they found tombs at a Bolivian quarry containing remains from more than 500 years ago that give an insight into the interaction of various peoples with the expanding Inca empire.

Preventing chemical weapons as sciences converge

November 15, 2018

Alarming examples of the dangers from chemical weapons have been seen recently in the use of industrial chemicals and the nerve agent sarin against civilians in Syria, and in the targeted assassination operations using VX ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.