Lyuba | 2007
(42 000 years) When it was found lying in the snow on the banks of the Yuribei River, in 2007, female mammoth calf Lyuba still had breast milk in its stomach.

The fabulous destiny of a mammoth calf

 

To this day, Lyuba is the most remarkably well-preserved specimen to have ever been found. But although she is today a true ambassador for fossilized mammoth calves, she came close to missing her destiny.

Mysterious little elephant

Yuri Khudi, who rears Nenets reindeers, tells how he found Lyuba lying on the banks of the Yuribei River in May 2007. He then decided not to bring the curious little elephant back to his camp but communicated his discovery to the local authorities. A search party was organized in order to identify and recover the oddity. But once on the spot … no sign of Lyuba!

Informed of the situation through word of mouth, another reindeer breeder had taken it and traded it for a year’s worth of food supplies at a nearby grocery store. The calf is finally found there and placed under administrative care… But Lyuba is a burden. What’s to become of a fossilized mammoth calf in a region where the only resource of interest is gas extraction? Why not get in touch with Bernard Buigues, the “mammoth hunter”?

Two years to understand Lyuba

After being examined for three study sessions by Russian, Japanese, American and French scientists in the Shemanowskyi Museum of Salekhard, Lyuba is sent by the Mammuthus team to the Jikei University School of Medicine, in Japan. There, a series of radiographic tests is performed with tomographic equipment and MRI machines, in order to assess the cause of death and make an inventory of its organs before the autopsy scheduled at the Zoology Institute of St Petersburg.

 

> Watch Lyuba in the Japanese laboratory, in an excerpt from the National Geographic documentary “Waking the Baby Mammoth”.

 

Shaping a scenario

Analyses run on Lyuba show that the baby mammoth probably attempted to cross a river far too deep for her. The silt that most likely suffocated her soon turned into a sarcophagus that preserved the body into its almost intact present condition.

 

> Watch scientists hypothesize on how this baby mammoth came to be so perfectly preserved thousands of years after her death.

 

A stomach full of milk

While studying Lyuba’s intestines closely, the Mammuthus scientists have found traces of breast milk and… faeces. Like all contemporary elephant calves, Lyuba had ingested her mother’s faeces, which contained bacteria allowing her to digest the plants that would constitute her diet as an adult mammoth.

Finally, Lyuba’s teeth and tusks bore her birth date and the time of her death engraved on its surface. According to the neonatal line imprinted in the ivory, Lyuba was probably born at the beginning of the spring after being in her mother’s womb for 22 months, and died only 31 days later.

 

International emblem

Lyuba’s story is still being written. From museums to exhibitions, thousands of visitors have followed her in the United States and in Japan through a series of exhibitions organised by the Hong Kong Field Museum, and will soon be displayed in China and Singapore.

 

Discoveries