The Japan Times
July 24, 1999

Preserved in permafrost, 23,000-year-old beast may be cloned

Siberian mammoth found frozen

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. (Reuters) An adult woolly mammoth mummified 23,000 years ago under Siberia's frozen tundra will be dug out of the permafrost and may one day be cloned, an international team of scientists said Thursday.

In a scenario worthy of the fictional, cloned dinosaurs in the "Jurassic Park" movies, French explorer Bernard Buigues said the intact soft tissues and the hair of the Jarkov mammoth held out the possibility of recovering intact DNA.

"It will be interesting to know the habits of this animal and what he was doing in this place that was a very difficult place to live," Buigues said in a teleconference with reporters from southwestern South Dakota, a center for fossil finds.

"In the pictures we have, you see all the kinds of hair that the mammoth has. The color is intact," said Buigues, who is affiliated with the National History Museum of France. "The smell of the skin is also there."

Most likely, any attempt to clone the extinct woolly mammoth - an example of one of the six or seven known species of mammoth that roamed the Earth through the Pleistocene era - would be done by using a genetically similar Asian elephant as the gestating mother, said Larry Ageneroad, a geology professor at the University of Northern Arizona, who will join the team in Russia in September.

The Jarkov mammoth, named for the local tribesmen who discovered the buried beast and who previously removed its valuable tusks, is a male who died at age 47, Buigues said. The exposed head has decomposed, but the body remains intact under the permafrost, or permanently frozen tundra.

The six-week excavation project will begin in September as temperatures cool and will entail digging out a 33-ton block of permafrost containing the mammoth's body.

The block will be flown by Russia's largest helicopter to the ice caves in Khatanga, Siberia, where a subfreezing laboratory will be fashioned for scientists.

This adult specimen is different from others found in Siberia and elsewhere because scientists will be able to examine grass and other flora that were preserved with it, and possibly recover organs and even sperm.

Many of the plants that mammoths were known to eat on the mountainous steppes of what is now the North American Rocky Mountains and Siberia are known to still exist, but the mystery of the mammoth's extinction persists, the scientists said.