Female woolly mammoth gave birth to nine babies: can she have another 28,000 years later

Fresh blood discovery by scientists in remains of extinct creature as experts start research this month in hunt for live cells.

The mammoth remains in a better condition after tens of thousands of years than a dead human after six months – say scientists. Picture: Nikolay Pschennikov, North-Eastern Federal Universtity

The remains of a mammoth found in May 2013 on Malolyakhovskiy Island have yielded new hope in cloning hopes from the ancient animals, and also some intriguing puzzles.

One is this: did woolly mammoth blood have a special natural quality that prevented it freezing, as scientists now suspect? Despite a temperature of minus 10C, the blood was liquid.

Another is: why are the mammoth remains in a better condition after tens of thousands of years than a dead human after six months?

Other new facts on these mammoth remains which, because of the quality of preservation, are crucial to current efforts at cloning, are these: the carcass is some 28,000 years old, according to Dutch experts from Groningen University, some 15,000 years ‘younger’ than originally believed; and tusk analysis shows that this mammoth died aged between 57 and 67, having given birth no less than nine times.

Rings in the tusk indicate age, as with a tree, while the calcium content decreases with when the animal is pregnant or feeding a baby.

An initial, well-publicised blood sample found from this female mammoth during the excavations of the carcass site is confirmed as genuine – but it has ‘degraded’.

However, a new source of blood in the remains – preserved in the permafrost in the Sakha Republic, also known as Yakutia – was revealed to the The Siberian Times by Semyon Grigoryev,  Director of the Lazarev Mammoth Museum at Northeastern Federal University in Yakutsk.

‘We also have found good blood samples, that we obtained during dissection of the left front leg,’ he said.

Work on examining blood from these ‘big vessels’ – which came to light during an ‘autopsy’ of the remains earlier this year – is due to start soon by Russian and Danish scientists, he said.

The remains of a mammoth found in May 2013 on Malolyakhovskiy Island. Pictures: Semyon Grigoriev

There is hope that this new source of blood will be more significant than the original.

‘We have several samples of blood,’ he made clear.

‘The first type is a liquid which we got initially, during excavations. It really is blood. Our specialists in the Medicine Institute in Yakutsk have very good equipment and found haemoglobin, white blood cells. So it cannot be some other liquid. Of course, over time, it strongly degraded, but the fact is unique and interesting – we found liquid blood.’

In such cold, they had not expected to find any liquid, and the scientists are now seeking to understand any ‘anti-freeze’ qualities of the blood.

‘We do not connect big hopes with this blood. Some journalists wrongly wrote that if we found blood we can clone. This is not so. There are other interesting questions, like – how it manage to stay liquid? Was there some natural anti-freeze in it?’

He explained: ‘I want to underline that according to histologists, some mammoth tissues are preserved better than those of a man who died died months ago. Our common goal is to understand – why is the mammoth’s body was so well preserved?

‘What helped this? Perhaps some microorganisms, or the environment? Of course, the main cause is that the carcass was in ice and not mummified, but 28,000 years have gone by. So we need to understand which range of factors helped this preservation. Maybe the mammoths had some special properties.’

Work is due to start this month on seeking to identify live cells, he said.

Aarhus University, and Lund University, as well as to South Korea for further research.

‘The first type is a liquid which we got initially, during excavations. It really is blood.’ Pictures: Semyon Grigoriev

The spur for the studies of the mammoth remains, with a view to cloning, has come from South Korean scientists, but Grigoriyev stressed that local Yakutian experts are closely involved in the research, as are specialists from many countries.

‘We will search and allocate live cells here, we will work with lots of (biological) material here. There could be nothing there, of course, but if we find some living cells, we will pass the samples to the Koreans and they will work further on cloning.

‘We are determined  too get the experience and to do big part of work by ourselves.’

Geneticist Natalia Oreshkova, of the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyark, revealed that significant progress has been made in genome sequencing of the woolly mammoth, one of 16 separate directions of research currently underway into the ancient creature.

‘I gathered all the samples that I could – from the trunk, femur and humerus. We found very good DNA from the humerus, for example,’ she told The Siberian Times.

‘At the first sight DNA seemed good. We isolated rather large fragments. When we started to work with them it turned out that the DNA was very unstable, it started to crumble during our work.’

Despite this, she remains optimistic of significant advances as other Russian experts join the research.

Geneticist Natalia Oreshkova, of the Siberian Federal University in Krasnoyark. Picture: The Siberian Times

‘I agreed on co-operation with the Southern Federal University in Rostov-on-Don,’ she revealed. They have good equipment and are rather experienced in work with ancient DNA from bones.

‘They have developed methods, and qualified staff. We will share our results later. And I think the first results of our work will be announced before the New Year.

‘In general it is supposed that we will set up the whole mammoth’s genome as a result.

‘Previously there were attempts to set up mammoth’s genome, and mitochondrial DNA too, but we think that given the quality of our material, we can be more complete.’

Scientists earlier said that the blood also reveals an unnatural death, with the creature in distress, possibly from falling into an ice hole from which she could not escape.

If and when experiments begin, an elephant will be the surrogate mother, enabling the species to be brought back from the dead.

Mammoth remains have undergone a unique autopsy in Yakutsk. Pictures: Nikolay Pschennikov, Michil Yakovlev, North-Eastern Federal Universtity

Mammoths disappeared from Siberia at the end of the Pleistocene period some 10,000 years ago in circumstances that are a matter of scientific debate.

Climate change and hunting by humans may have been factors. An isolated population of the creature survived on Wrangel Island until around 4,000 years ago.