Scientists play 'Jurassic Park' with mammoths
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But history and evolution turned against the woolly mammoths. As the earth warmed up 15,000 years ago, much of their natural habitat disappeared, along with traditional food sources. Paleontologists also theorize that a mysterious pathogen wiped out many mammoths.Skip to next paragraph
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Perhaps the most crushing blow, though, came from man. In 10,000 BC, a prehistoric group of nomadic human hunters called the Clovis began to hunt woolly mammoths in Siberia and the Americas as a source of food.
Although no mammoths are alive, they are still very much a part of life in the taiga and others parts of the world.
Ivory from nine-foot-long mammoth tusks is traded in Africa and Asia. In the frozen tundra of Russia, the native Dolgans and other indigenous peoples use ivory to fashion buttons, fish hooks, and other implements.
"They are the symbol of the Ice Age," says Agenbroad, a paleontologist at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. "They are depicted in cave art and effigy images. Most of the [Dolgan] reindeer harnesses are held together with ivory buttons. So mammoths are still very much with us, so to speak."
To the frozen north
While mammoth bones and fossils have been found in hundreds of places worldwide - Agenbroad has even found mammoth dung - only in the frozen hinterlands have mammoth bodies emerged relatively intact.
Such was the case when a Dolgan family located twin mammoth tusks protruding from the permafrost near the city of Khatanga in 1997. When they cut off the tusks and took them to a local market to sell, they encountered Bernard Buigues, a French polar explorer and guide.
He persuaded the family to take him to where they had found the tusks. There Mr. Buigues removed the mammoth's head, which was in danger of being exposed to the elements, but left the carcass buried in the permafrost.
Using carbon-dating techniques, scientists determined that the mammoth was a 47-year-old male that died nearly 20,000 years ago, probably after becoming trapped in a muddy swamp and getting frozen over.
Buigues then set about organizing a second expedition, this time with the goal of removing the remainder of the mammoth's body with the explicit hope of recovering DNA. Last month, Buigues - with his team of international scientists and funding from the Discovery Channel - arrived with power tools, generators, and heavy equipment.
The plan was to carve a trench around the mammoth, drill holes through the permafrost beneath the mammoth, slide iron bars through the holes, and then hoist the 25-ton block of ice out with a helicopter. The ice, with mammoth inside, would would be preserved in a permafrost cave.
So far Buigues and his team have completed the excavation and drilled the holes, but winter is rapidly approaching, and they are hoping a shipment of helicopter fuel arrives before the river freezes. Operations in winter are difficult, and warm temperatures in spring could mean disaster.
"If we get a warming and you thaw this block, you could have the entire top layer containing the mammoth start to slough off," says Agenbroad. "Unless we get it into a safe house, it has all the possibilities of further damage."
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society