‘Mammoths and Mastodons’ revealed at Field Museum

By mlekovic

Frozen in the Siberian Arctic for more than 40,000 years, Lyuba, a baby woolly mammoth, was discovered by a Siberian reindeer herder and his two sons from the Nenets tribe in 2007.

Lyuba, along with a herd of other mammoth and mastodon fossils, will be on display at The Field Museum of Natural History, 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive, from March 5—Sept. 6, 2010 in the “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age” exhibition.  After Sept. 6, the exhibition will embark on a four-year tour of 10 venues throughout North America and overseas.

The exhibition, developed by The Field Museum, marks the first display of the baby mammoth in the U.S. It includes Lyuba’s tiny body, which is less than one meter tall and just more than one meter in length, determined by CT scans—a medical imaging method—and other scientific evidence that provides new insights and confirms existing theories about the species.

David Foster, vice president for Exhibitions at The Field Museum, said mammoths and mastodons were wonderfully successful creatures of the Ice Age.

“They were a source of food and artistic inspiration for ancient peoples who lived in Europe, Asia and North America,” Foster said. “But despite their size and ability to adapt to different habitats, these early cousins of the elephant eventually went extinct, leaving us an abundant fossil record.”

It will be an interactive exhibition with numerous visuals and a hands-on approach so people can enjoy the mammoths and mastodons of the Ice Age.

Daniel Fisher, professor of Geological Sciences at the University of Michigan, was one of the first scientists to study and examine Lyuba. He is also the consulting curator of the exhibition.

“This is an animal that’s exquisitely well-preserved,” Fisher said. “It’s not just the best preserved baby mammoth, it’s the best preserved mammoth of any age and size.”

Her whole body was preserved in the very late stages of its transfer to a local museum in Russia. Once she reached the village, there were hungry dogs that proceeded to nibble off parts of her right ear and the tail. She is intact enough that she still yields DNA, which is extremely beneficial to scientists, Fisher said.

In terms of the basic anatomical structure, Lyuba is essentially whole. This will allow scientists to study and learn from her.

“She comes to us completely intact with a story of her life, death and post-mortem preservation ultimately that’s full of twists and turns,” Fisher said. “There are new things we are learning about mammoth anatomy and processes of preservation.”

Work being done on Lyuba is ongoing. Much of the restoration is still in negotiation with the Russian Depository Institution, according to Fisher.

Fisher concluded that one-month old Lyuba died after she fell into a mudhole and suffocated. His hypothesis is based on the amount of sediment scientists found in her trunk and lungs, which indicated that she tried to exhale the sediment through her trunk, but once she couldn’t, she breathed it back in and choked.

Because Lyuba drowned in mud, she had an instant burial and her whole body was preserved. Additionally, she wasn’t found frozen because Siberia had an arctic summer in 2006 where her body was exposed to 24-hour sunlight.

William Simpson, collections manager of fossil vertebrates at The Field Museum, said it’s important to reveal Lyuba to the public through this exhibition because it will show people what the Ice Age was like.

“Bones are compelling,” Simpson said. “It’s interesting to see the bones but to see an animal that isn’t just bones, it’s the flesh too. I think people have a visceral reaction, just a wonder at seeing a mummified creature from the Ice Age.”

The 7,500-square-foot exhibition takes visitors on a journey back to the Ice Age, where they can roam among life-sized recreations of these creatures and marvel at some of the oldest human artifacts that are still in existence.

The exhibit will also include other creatures that lived in conjunctive ecosystems with these mammoths  such as the  short-faced bear and a saber-toothed tiger.