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NATURAL HISTORY All I want for Christmas is a baby woolly mammoth

PETER FROST shares his note to Santa. He says he’s been a very good boy and tells Santa what he wants for Christmas

THE woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) were enormous tusked beasts, the last of a whole range of species of mammoths which roamed the Earth between 4,000 and 400,000 years ago. 

Isolated populations survived on St Paul Island, Alaska, until about 6,400 years ago and in Russia until just 4,000 years ago. The Ice Age trapped at least 150 million mammoths in the many glaciers left by that period.

Over many years a few really well preserved skeletons would emerge from the glaciers. Russian traders sold the ivory tusks and teeth all over the world. 

In the 1850s a huge Ivory House was built in St Katherine’s Dock, London, and almost all of one large floor was given over to mammoth ivory, much of which would end up being used to make the white keys of the cheap pianos made in Camden Town and other London factories.

A contemporary report in 1858 described St Katherine’s like this: “Laid on the floor among the circles of elephant tusks is a heap of larger and browner tusks than the rest. 

“Brown they well may be, for these are the tusks of mammoths that have lain frozen in Siberian ice for 50,000 years; but 50,000 years are suspect in the eyes of the ivory expert. 

“Mammoth ivory tends to warp; you cannot extract billiard balls from mammoths, but only umbrella handles and the backs of the cheaper kind of hand-glass. 

“Thus if you buy an umbrella or a looking-glass not of the finest quality, it is likely that you are buying the tusk of a brute that roamed through Asian forests before England was an island.”

Mammoth remains were known in Asia long before they were known to Europeans. In the 17th century, mammoth bones were unearthed by European explorers in the northern regions of America. 

The origins of the remains became a matter of long debate and were identified as belonging to legendary creatures that lived before the Biblical flood of Noah. There are of course millions of people in the US who still believe that today. 

In 1796 French zoologist Georges Cuvier discovered that mammoths were, to all but the creationists, an extinct species of elephant. 

Now times have changed. First climate change is thawing the glaciers at a terrifying rate and the only tiny silver lining to that particular dark cloud is that more and more preserved ancient beasts, including mammoths, are being revealed. 

Now that capitalism is the name of the game in Russia, mammoth ivory is being uncovered and sold by private enterprise companies. 

Prices have rocketed and recently when a unique huge really well-preserved mammoth with hair, tendons and a good set of teeth came on to the Western market, the auctioneers and the popular media were predicting a selling price approaching a quarter of a million pounds. 

This was believed to be the first ever complete woolly mammoth sold privately in either Britain or Europe.  

Named Monty, this male six-ton beast was 18ft (5.5 metres) long and nearly 12ft (3.5 metres) tall. Experts had expected the rare specimen to sell for up to £250,000, although some of the popular media put the price as high as a million dollars. In fact it was sold in a West Sussex auction house for £150,000. 

The trade in mammoth ivory, if not in complete animals, is huge. It is estimated that about 60 tons of mammoth ivory are exported from Russia, mostly to China, every year. 

Mammoth ivory is legal to sell, unlike elephant ivory, which is banned under international law unless it was made into an art object or artefact prior to 1946.

A well-preserved baby mammoth is apparently the present of choice for money-no-object multimillionaire rock stars or internet entrepreneurs. 

Bigger mammoths take up a lot more room to display properly so are more likely to end up in a museum or decorating a really posh office block atrium.

One perfectly preserved baby mammoth owned by the Shemanovskiy Museum in Salekhard, Russia, was lent to the London Natural History Museum in 2014. 

This Christmas it is on show in Sydney Australia. Lyuba (the name means Love) measures 33 inches (85cm) tall and 51 inches (130cm) long.

With some of the dead mammoth bodies thawing from the Siberian permafrost being in such a well-preserved condition, scientists have been asking the question: “Could we use the DNA in them to clone a live mammoth?”

One body in particular was so well preserved that the contents of its digestive tract perfectly revealed its last meal. The animal had gorged itself on a rich harvest of buttercups and other meadow flowers.

This young and healthy mammoth was speedily named Buttercup. It had eaten its last meal around 40,000 years ago. Buttercup is now in South Korea where scientists are working on analysing the genome from Buttercup’s specimen. Buttercup and her attendant scientists have been the subject of a Channel 4 TV documentary.  

South Korean geneticists are working on bringing Buttercup the mammoth back to life. But should we? One major objection is that cloning will almost certainly need a threatened Asian elephant to act as the surrogate mother. 

Surely it would be better to use time, money and rare resources to preserve existing species than reviving one that has been extinct for millennia?

Cloning, if it goes ahead, will certainly be a long and extremely complicated process that is unlikely to be successful.

However, with increasing expertise in digital TV techniques we can all watch whole herds of realistic giant woolly mammoth grazing on the tundra and living the mammoth family life in amazing detail. Perhaps we should be content with that.

 

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