Woolly mammoth 'autopsy' provides flesh and blood samples

A frozen woolly mammoth found with a pool of liquid blood last year in Siberia has been given the animal version of an autopsy, providing blood and tissue samples that may be used to clone the extinct ancient animal.

'Buttercup' had at least 8 calves, may have had gallstones

Tori Herridge, who was present when researchers at Sooam took their samples from Buttercup, said that as of November, the company had not found any intact cells in its mammoth tissue and blood samples. (Nick Clarke Powell)

A frozen woolly mammoth found with a pool of liquid blood last year in Siberia has undergone the animal version of an autopsy, revealing new information and providing blood and tissue samples that may be used to clone the extinct ancient mammal.

The well-preserved mammoth, nicknamed Buttercup, was discovered buried in the ice on Maily Lyakhovsky Island in May 2013. Researchers were particularly excited to find what looked like liquid blood in pockets of ice under the animal’s belly.

The examination of the body to determine the cause of death, equivalent to an autopsy in humans, is technically called a necropsy when performed on an animal. Footage of a weeklong procedure performed on the mammoth In Yakutsk, Siberia, in March aired on BBC’s Channel 4 this past weekend and will air on the Canadian Smithsonian Channel on Dec. 14 at 10 p.m. 

“We had to wait until she defrosted in stages, so we could get deeper and deeper into her innards,” recalled Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London, who participated in the examination.

As that happened, the smell of the carcass grew more and more horrific.

“It really stank,” Herridge said. “It smelled obviously of rotting meat, but weirdly rotting milk as well … and then overlaid on that the strongest bathroom cleaning agent you could possibly think of.”

But the necropsy, led by Semyon Grigoriev chair of the mammoth museum at the Research Institute of Applied Ecology of the North at North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk, Siberia, did yield interesting findings.

An analysis of the mammoth’s teeth showed that she died when she was in her 50s. Researchers also examined her tusks, whose growth rates depended on whether the animal was pregnant or lactating. They learned she had given birth to at least eight calves and that at least one of the calves had died.

In the mammoth’s liver, the researchers found mysterious white spheres about the size of golf balls that Herridge thinks might have been gallstones. In her intestines were rocks in “quite large numbers” that she may have swallowed while grazing.

Herridge suggested these were clues that the mammoth may not have been healthy when she got stuck in a peat bog shortly before her death.

When she was found, the meat from her thigh bones had been stripped of flesh, and part of her spine and skull were missing. The Russian researchers who took part in the study suggested that the mammoth may have been partially eaten alive by predators, but Herridge said she wasn’t sure what led them to that conclusion.

Like a 'piece of steak'

What remained of the mammoth’s flesh was the highlight. While many mammoths found in permafrost are dried up and mummified, “this was really juicy,” said Herridge, who likened the appearance of the muscle to a “piece of steak — bright red when you cut into the flesh and then as it hit the air, it would go brown.”

Tori Herridge, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum in London, participated in the autopsy on the woolly mammoth that she nicknamed Buttercup. (Channel 4)

A Russian pathologist who examined the flesh said it was better preserved than a human corpse left in the permafrost.

“There is something really special and unique about this muscle tissue.”

The trunk is also the best-preserved mammoth trunk ever found.

Researchers took samples of the tissue to conduct further studies.

Of course, one of the main goals of the necropsy was to recover more blood. The red liquid found with the mammoth was likely degraded blood, as it contained hemoglobin but no intact red blood cells, Herridge said.

During the necropsy, researchers collected more reddish fluid from the carcass, along with “red sticky stuff” that wasn’t flowing, but appeared to contain red blood cells.

Samples of the blood and muscle have already been taken back to Korea by a company called Sooam Biotech Research Foundation that hopes to use them to clone the mammoth.

Canadian researcher awaits samples

Some samples are also expected to be sent to Denmark, where they will be studied by Aarhus University researcher Roy Weber and University of Manitoba researcher Kevin Campbell.

University of Manitoba researcher Kevin Campbell has previously used DNA from a 40,000 year-old mammoth to get bacteria to make a vial of mammoth hemoglobin. He'd like to compare it to the hemoglobin found in an actual mammoth. (University of Manitoba)

Campbell, who was invited to participate in the necropsy but unable to make it, said he is now “eagerly” awaiting blood samples retrieved from the mammoth so he can examine the oxygen-carrying protein hemoglobin in the blood.

He has previously used DNA from a 40,000-year-old mammoth to get bacteria to make mammoth hemoglobin. That hemoglobin was found to do a better job of releasing oxygen at cold temperatures than elephant hemoglobin. Campbell would like to compare that hemoglobin to that found in Buttercup’s blood.

“This is a something synthesized by a mammoth, not us,” he said, and it may be used to confirm the results. But it may also say something about the diversity of mammoths.

“Are all mammoths the same? Probably not.”

Evidence suggests that mammoths became extinct around 4,000 years ago, although they died out thousands of years earlier throughout much of their range.


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