Can the ancient tusks of the extinct species retrieved from Arctic ice tell us exactly why it died out?
“The first time I met palaeontologist Dan Fisher was in a hotel in the Arctic frontier town of Salekhard, in Siberia. I was there to film an expedition to recover a new mammoth specimen with a crew from the BBC. We were keen to head north into the tundra of the Yamal peninsula, where we’d heard that new mammoth carcasses had been discovered. After sharing a large Mi-8 helicopter with a load of Siberian hunters, we landed at a reindeer herders’ camp, consisting of a few tepee-like “chums” on an island surrounded by ice-choked rivers. This was to be our base while the team tried to track down the mammoth remains said to be in the vicinity.
But fate was against us. One trail dried up as we got close. We knew a worker on the Gazprom railway had reported finding a mammoth, but it seemed that he had either forgotten the location or been offered a better price. We hoped to investigate other possible finds to the north, but were thwarted by the iced-up rivers. Eventually we had to give up.
Dan was philosophical about this turn of events. He’d been on many expeditions to Siberia, sometimes finding mammoths, often not. For him, the real prize was mammoth ivory – the same stuff that the reindeer herders searched for every spring as the ice loosened its grip. Most of this ancient ivory would be traded to the east, to markets in Japan and China. A very small proportion of it would find its way to scientists, who saw a value beyond its aesthetic appeal.
Later in the year, I visited Dan in his own habitat, the University of Michigan’s Museum of Palaeontology, to find out how he unlocked the secrets of mammoth ivory. He brought out a tusk he’d acquired on his recent trip to Wrangell Island in the Arctic Ocean, home to the last of the mammoths. This tusk was from an animal that had died a mere 6,000 years ago. We took it into a small room full of scientific paraphernalia – and a bandsaw – and started to cut. It was slow and painstaking work” (read more).
(Source: Guardian; bottom image Mammuthus.org)