Baby mammoths that died thousands of years ago have been examined using a 3D scanner. Analysis of the remains revealed how the ancient juveniles died.
Preserved remains of a pair of young mammoths were subjected to analysis, using a CT scanner. This allowed researchers to produce a 3D virtual image of the artifacts. Investigators determined the two ancient animals died after inhaling mud.
The two mammoths are the most-detailed and well-preserved specimens of their type ever discovered. Paleontologists believe the creatures were just one and two months old when they perished.
Khroma (the older of the pair) and Lyuba lived 40,000 years ago during the last ice age. Khroma was discovered in October 2008, trapped in permafrost, near the Khroma River in northeastern Siberia. Lyuba was found in May 2007 by reindeer herders 3,000 miles away, nearly completely intact in northwest Siberia. The nails and fur of that creature was lost to the fossilization process. Scavengers, including ravens and (potentially) arctic foxes ate part of the exposed flesh of Khroma.
"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," Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist at the University of Michigan, said.
Ages of the mammoths were determined by counting the rings in teeth, much like reading tree rings to measure age. The process also determined that both animals were born in springtime.
Fisher and his team believe Lyuba may have died when she tried to cross a frozen pond. When the ice broke, the mammoth was plunged into frigid water and drowned. Khroma may have been standing on a riverbank with her mother when it collapsed. This scenario would account for a broken backbone discovered by researchers.
Large amounts of soft tissue were preserved over the millennia, including muscle, fat, organs, connective tissue and skin. Some milk was also found in Khroma's stomach.
These were the first full-body CT scans ever performed on mammoths. Because of their remarkable condition, samples of the animals had to be non-destructive. Medical CT scanners were able to examine the bodies without ruining the remains.
"[S]ince they are both essentially complete skeletons, they can be thought of as Rosetta Stones that will help us interpret all the isolated baby mammoth bones that show up at other localities," Fisher told the press.
Due to their unusual preservation, paleontologists are referring to these two specimens as "mummified" mammoths.
Examination of the two juvenile mammoths was detailed in the Journal of Paleontology.