Scans of preserved mammoth babies thaw details into ancient animals’ development

BY Justin Scuiletti  July 14, 2014 at 5:34 PM EDT
CT images showing the head and shoulders of Lyuba (top) and Khroma (bottom). The labels indicate inhaled sediment in the baby mammoths’ airways. Image credit: University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

CT images showing the head and shoulders of Lyuba (top) and Khroma (bottom). The labels indicate inhaled sediment in the baby mammoths’ airways. Image credit: University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology

First of their kind scans of preserved infant woolly mammoths have made the insight into the early stages of development for the 40,000 year-old prehistoric animals less fuzzy.

According to a report published July 8 in the Journal of Paleontology, researchers performed a full body CT scan of two mammoth newborns, named Lyuba and Khroma, who died at the ages of 1 and 2 months respectively. The skeletal structures of the infants, which researchers consider to be the most well-preserved baby mammoth specimens found to date, gave the scientists the chance to document the various changes that occurred to the body as the ancient pachyderms grew. They also helped determine whether the mammoth gestation periods may have been shorter than that of modern elephants.

“These two exquisitely preserved baby mammoths are like two snapshots in time,” said co-author Zachary T. Calamari of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. “We can use them to understand how factors like location and age influenced the way mammoths grew into the huge adults that captivate us today.”

The scans also revealed the most likely reason why the babies died so young: they suffocated.

Both animals appeared to be healthy prior to their deaths, affirming researchers to believe that their untimely deaths were due to a “traumatic demise.” Scans of the mammoths revealed different types of mud blocking the air passages, both explained by the two slightly different ways they would have died. The finer sediment obstructing the trunk for Lyuba suggests that she died in a lake, perhaps falling through melting ice while crossing. The coarser sediment in the trunk, mouth and throat of Khroma, alongside fractured vertebrae, suggest that she died from a collapsing riverbank.