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Baby Mammoths' Violent Deaths Revealed

Jul 15, 2014 06:16 PM EDT
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Strange 160-million-year-old fossils reveal that the earliest mammals could glide

Computerized tomography (CT) scans have revealed clues of the terrifying last moments of two baby mammoths' deaths. The conclusions that can be drawn from these scans are detailed in a recent study.

The study, published in the Journal of Paleontology, shows how both mammoths likely fell into very cold and watery graves, explaining for the remarkable preservation of their mummified remains.

The mammoths, discovered in different parts of the Siberian Arctic, are "the most complete and best-preserved baby mammoths specimens ever found," according to the University of Michigan (UM).

Researchers from the university were invited to analyze the remains using various scanning techniques, and they quickly found that the 1- and 2-month-old mammoths, named Lyuba and Khroma respectively, can offer clues to how young mammoths matured.

"This is the first time anyone's been able to do a comparative study of the skeletal development of two baby mammoths of known age," said UM paleontologist Daniel Fisher.

"This allowed us to document the changes that occur as the mammoth body develops," Fisher added. "And since they are both essentially complete skeletons, they... will help us interpret all the isolated baby mammoth bones that show up at other localities."

Exciting potential for new discoveries aside, the scans also provided the researchers a unique look at how these young animals may have died.

According to the study, co-authored by Fisher, Lyuba (which means "love" in Russian) was well-fed and healthy newborn just up until her death.

[Credit: University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology]

The scans revealed that Lyuba had inhaled mud characteristic of lake beds, and her brain showed evidence of something called the "mammalian dive reflex."

Researchers have long known that when the facials tissue of modern-day mammals is exposed to cold water, their bodies will prepare for oxygen loss by promoting a brief moment of elevated blood circulation from the heart to the brain. This can help the brain to survive longer without oxygen once the body is submerged under water.

[Credit: University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology]

Fisher told LiveScience that this and other factors betray some terrifying last moments for the unfortunate mammoth, where she fell through the top of a frozen lake only to "face plant" into a thick and muddy lakebed. There, mud got into her nasal passageways, which she then tried to blow out of her truck. This only got the mud further stuck.

"It moved straight into her trachea and bronchi and by that time she was too exhausted and couldn't clear her airway," Fisher told Live Science. "It was just a matter of minutes before she would have lost consciousness."

Khroma suffered a similar fate, but it was harder for the researchers to determine the whole story, as her corpse was partially eaten, likely by ancient Arctic foxes - hyper-carnivorous predators that would eat any meat they could get their hands on.

Still, a broken back and mud in her trachea hints at a flash flood or a dangerous mud slide.

(Photo : University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology)

Still, don't mourn the little mammoths too much. Their lives will now be forever immortalized as the first two examples of mammoth childhood.

"These two exquisitely preserved baby mammoths are like two snapshots in time," said co-author Zachary T. Calamari of the American Museum of Natural History "We can use them to understand how ... mammoths grew into the huge adults that captivate us today."

The study was published in the Journal of Paleontology on July 1.

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