Buttercup the Mammoth

Woolly Mammoths are the most well-known, and most well-loved, of all Ice Age animals. Their great size along with their long, shaggy hair has hit the ‘cute chord’ in the hearts of many. Humans have a strong emotional connection with elephants (most do anyway), so perhaps the idea of a slightly bigger, much hairier elephant is pretty easy to relate to. They have been depicted in stunning cave art, and in family films like the fabulous Ice Age. Plus, mammoths lived until very recently, with the last surviving population living on the small isolated Wrangel Island in relict steppe habitat, north east of Russia, until only around 4,000 years ago.

Another reason they are so dear to us is that we have mammoths with hair and flesh, almost as if they died yesterday. Unlike almost all extinct animals where we have just the bones, we can see what a mammoth really looked like because frozen in the ice are real mammoths! The ground in the northern part of the beautifully varying landscape of Siberia is permanently frozen. This frozen soil, ‘permafrost’, can be up to 3 or 4 meters deep below the surface. Sometimes the permafrost can be deeper, where a bog or a pond has frozen the soil solid. And sometimes in these bogs, something else lies frozen.

Mammoths have been slowly thawing out of the Siberian permafrost for centuries. A thousand years ago, it was thought by people in Siberia and China, that these giant hairy beasts were enormous rats that used their massive teeth to dig underground where they lived. And of course, these terrifyingly oversized rats died when they reached the surface and hit the sunlight. A beautiful tale, but we know that these ‘giant rats’ are the frozen bodies of woolly mammoths that marched across this cold, icy landscape tens of thousands of years ago.

Many frozen mammoths have been found and been studied by scientists. The impeccably preserved baby mammoth, Lyuba, has been dissected and CT scanned revealing much about her short life, and even how she died. Another calf, Khroma, has been studied in detail (click here for a nice write up on these two mammoths). These, and a few others, have revealed a lot about what we know of woolly mammoths today, from the foods they ate, how long they weaned for, and how their bodies worked in the cold temperatures of the Steppe. Perhaps surprisingly, good mammoth carcasses that thaw out of the permafrost are quite rare. Bones and tusks are more common, because they are harder, but the soft flesh quickly decomposes and is scavenged by wolves. And the permafrost is a pretty massive area (an area roughly the size of the USA). So trundling across this cold, barren wasteland in the hope of spotting a little tusk poking out of the frozen ground often ends in disappointment.

However, specimens are found. And one particularly spectacular mammoth was discovered very recently in 2013. On the second largest of the Lyakhovsky Islands in northern Siberia, tusks were discovered and the locals informed researchers at Siberian Northeastern Federal University. It looked to be a very well preserved specimen (click here for a nice write up). What was fascinating about this frozen specimen some kind of red liquid was drained out of it, that appeared to be blood. I remember tweets on Twitter floating round questioning the validity of the images; could this be mammoth blood? The story of the find was all over the internet (click here).

A tantalising picture of a vial with some red liquid inside. (Image from here)

A tantalising picture of a vial with some red liquid inside. Could this be real mammoth blood? (Image from here)

The truth would be revealed on the beautifully crisp, starry evening of Sunday 23rd November 2014, where the first televised autopsy of a frozen mammoth carcass was aired in the UK. Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy was lead by a team of experts around the world, the programme would literally delve inside this frozen mammoth to discover more about its history and examine whether or not cloning a woolly mammoth is possible.

We are helped along in the documentary by the fantastic palaeobiologist, and TrowelBlazer, Tori Herridge from the Natural History Museum, London, who breaks down the jargon to give us the facts in nice easy to digest chunks. A natural presenter, Tori brings a human touch to the documentary, while passionately and emotionally explaining about the tough life and story of this 40,000 year old mammoth, which has been endearingly named Buttercup.

Buttercup was a female mammoth, with peculiarly large tusks! She was very well preserved, with a leg missing, and some flesh which had been eaten before she was frozen. Otherwise, a very well preserved mammoth; with the majority of the internal organs, lovely soft orange-brown fur, and her trunk all still there. Buttercup’s teeth show us that this mammoth was old, well into her 50s. Mammoths, like elephants have 6 sets of molars in their lifetime, and Buttercup was on her last set. What’s more, these molars were very well worn, so she was coming to the end of this final set, which were slightly twisted at the end: an unusual feature maybe showing Buttercup had ulcers, or other problems in her jaw. Her insides reveal what she ate.

Elbow deep inside the mammoth there was evidence of Buttercup’s last meal. She was eating grasses and buttercups. But, there was something strange inside some of her organs. Hard round nodules were found in her liver and intestine. They may be stones which were accidentally swallowed by the old mammoth; they have been sent off for tests because they are oddly very nicely rounded and all of a fairly similar size.

The tusks tell even more of Buttercup’s life. In incredible detail. Professor Dan Fisher, at the University of Michigan’s Department of Geological Sciences and Museum of Paleontology, lives for mammoth tusks. He can read a tusk like you or I can read a book. Buttercup’s tusks were large for a female mammoth, possibly due to her old age. This matriarch had lived a very long and, as her tusks reveal, a very successful life. Fisher CT scanned the tusks which showed clear growth lines. Female tusks grow more slowly when they are pregnant and feeding a calf; the CT scan revealed that Buttercup gave birth to eight children. Incredibly the hidden detail within the tusks tell us that she lost one calf whilst she was weaning it. Towards the final few years of her life, the growth lines in the tusks are fairly consistent, which Fisher suggests indicates, the menopausal stage of this mature female.

A beautiful illustration of mammoths by the talented Tabitha Paterson.

A beautiful illustration of mammoths by the talented Tabitha Paterson.

Buttercup was an old mammoth. She was on her last set of teeth, well into her 50s, and had given birth to eight young. With only one dying before it was fully weaned, Buttercup left her legacy. Her end was brutal and not fitting for this old mother. Buttercup was found frozen, with her rear sticking upwards; it seems the mammoth was trapped in a bog, and tried to push down on her front legs to escape. But she couldn’t. Trapped in the bog, she was exposed and defenceless, as predators moved in. Evidence on her skin indicates she was eaten. Eaten alive. Fortunately she must have sunk into the bog before too much of her was eaten, and her amazingly preserved body tells her story, 40,00 years later.

The strange liquid that was discovered coming out from the mammoth when she was first discovered was also analysed. The fluid seemed less viscous than blood we are familiar with, but it did have haemoglobin in it, although the red blood cells were broken up. But this was the first ever liquid mammoth blood found in a specimen (dried and frozen blood has been found before). Microscope slides of the blood showed cells which Russian scientists interpreted as white blood cells, but it seemed as though bacteria was present in the fluid. The researchers are still analysing samples to find out why it is liquid and not solid in such cold temperatures. This ‘flowing blood’ got scientists excited, because of the possibilities of cloning. One group of scientists from SOOAM Biotech Research Center in South Korea have full claims to the tissue of Buttercup to test cloning after funding a very expensive lab at the North Eastern Federal University in Siberia. The SOOAM Biotech Research Center have already successfully cloned dogs (apparently that’s a thing?!). In theory it is pretty simple; find an intact mammoth cell, complete with DNA, insert it into an Asian Elephant egg, give it a little electricity, and implant it into a surrogate. Hey presto, you have a clone of Buttercup. But cells containing intact DNA are rarely preserved – DNA normally breaks down pretty fast. Not to mention the ethics of an Asian elephant being a surrogate. (Debating the ethics of cloning the woolly mammoth is beyond this short post. Personally, I do wholeheartedly agree with Tori’s wonderfully written piece for The Guardian about her views on cloning the mammoth here.)

There is another way of ‘cloning’ a mammoth. Scientists in America have been working on genetically modifying elephant DNA to make it more mammoth like. It sounds simple: cut out a segment of elephant DNA and replace it with a gene to grow more hair, cut out another section and replace it with a gene for cold tolerant blood, and so on, until you have what looks like a mammoth. Not strictly a clone, and not technically a mammoth, this man-made animal takes away the problems of searching for intact mammoth DNA. It also takes away the ethical issues with having a surrogate, as the team are looking at growing the fetus outside the body. (George Church, at Harvard University, leading the research, explains in more detail here.)

This one beautiful discovery has shown us what life was like for one individual. A mother, a matriarch, who met a unfortunate, terrible end. Buttercup has also opened up the possibilities of bringing science fiction to life; cloning a woolly mammoth may actually become a reality in the next few years. Herds of magnificent woolly mammoths may once ago lollop across the Siberian permafrost.

Tori Herridge is on Twitter: @ToriHerridge

Buttercup the mammoth is also on Twitter: @IceAgeButtercup

Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)

Art by Tabitha Paterson (@TabithaPaterson)

*Postscript: Before watching Woolly Mammoth: the Autopsy, I watched Frozen for the first time with my little ones. It was a fun film. And yes, there may have been tears. (Damn it Disney! Every *single* time!!) That evening, I, with Mammoths and Frozen on the brain, may have shared a re-jig of Anna’s song:

Do you wanna clone a Mammoth?

Come on lets get some blood,

I’ve never seen Mammoth DNA before.

Come on show yourself,

It’s only been 40,000 years.

Do you wanna clone a Mammoth?

It doesn’t have to be a Mammoth.

 

Now of course, there is more. There is a classic, well known song from Frozen. But, lets just imagine if Buttercup was singing instead of Elsa. What would Buttercup sing about….. (and yes, this is possibly the geekiest thing I have ever written. Oh gawd. Here you are.)…..

 

The wind blows hard

on the tundra tonight,

not a creature to be seen.

Entombed in my Kingdom deep in the ground, 

and it looks like I’m the queen.

The ice is slowly melting

as the temperatures are getting warmer.

It can’t keep me in, my blood is flowing,

I need to get out of this sauna!

Someone has seen my fresh blood.

Be the quiet girl you’ve always had to be. 

Conceal, don’t feel, no one knows you’re here.

Well, now they know!

*

Let it flow. Let it flow!

I won’t hold back anymore!

Let it flow. Let it flow!

Take me now for sure.

I don’t care what they’re going to do.

Let them find out about my life.

The cold never bothered me anyway.

*

It’s funny how some time,

makes everything seem small.

For 40,000 years I’ve be trapped beneath the ground. 

It’s time to see what I can do,

be born again and make my sound!

Clone me, right or wrong,

I’m finally free of the ice to sing my song!

*

Let it flow. Let it flow!

Clone me if you can!

Let it flow. Let it flow.

Bring me back. Bring back my clan!

Here I lie on this metal bench,

let the world know.

*

My teeth tell of my old years,

and I was on my last set.

My tusks tell how many calves I had,

and I lost one, and I was sad.

And one thought sinks on me like an icy blast.

I can’t go back; the past is in the past!

*

Let it flow. Let it flow. [Wriggles mammoth hips]

And I will rise again.

Let it flow. Let it flow.

That old matriach is gone.

Here I lie. On this metal bench.

My cells are to be cloned for me to live again!

The cold never bothered me anyway.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Woolly Mammoth and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Buttercup the Mammoth

  1. Great story about this matriarch mammoth…I was amazed to learn so much could be found out by examining the tusks.

  2. Pingback: No Bullwinkle | TwilightBeasts

  3. Pingback: A very brief introduction to mammoths | TwilightBeasts

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s