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Monday, April 13, 2009

Waking the Baby Mammoth

The frozen tundra that covers a majority of Russia and northern Asia is a hard place to live. The average winter temperature is 30 below zero, and winter seems to last a lifetime. The short summer, which still gets only glancing rays of sun, barely breaks above freezing. It's so cold year round that part of the ground never defrosts. Without the flowing groundwater and rich sunlight of more southern climates, the tundra cannot support trees. That's its defining trait, really - "tundra" comes from the Finnish word tunturi, meaning treeless plain.

The dominant plant life, thus, are the grasses. Only the hardiest plants can live in the nutrient poor, often frozen soil which dominates the rocky, barren landscape. Larger animals struggle to survive on such limited diets. In fact, only 48 land mammals call the tundra home, although thousands of insects and birds migrate there each year for the marshes which form in the brief summers when the very top permafrost melts.

And it is in this miserable, frozen wasteland that one of the most incredible scientific discoveries of our time was stumbled upon by a reindeer herder, one of the few human beings who braves where few other mammals can survive.


Waking the Baby Mammoth
premiering Sunday, April 26th at 9PM ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel


40,000 years ago, the world was very different. There were huge ice sheets covering much of the northern latitudes, and the area now covered in icy tundra was a rolling plain called the steppes. This grassy, arid, also treeless habitat covered what is now Siberia. Unlike now, the land was lush, and where plants now struggle, grasses flourished, as did the mega mammals which called these plains home. It was here that a baby mammoth was born, much later to be called Lyuba (love, in Russian). By the end of the Pleistocene era, her species, along with 3/4 of the genera of large mammals, would vanish, leaving few cues for us to find.

Lyuba was one of millions of woolly mammoths that once walked the lands alongside prehistoric man and neanderthals. She was not remarkable for her time. What makes her so special is that she died suddenly in such unique conditions that she was perfectly preserved for forty thousand years.

The National Geographic Special follows the scientists as they study Lyuba, the best preserved mammoth ever found. Using state of the art technology, they sought to learn as much as they can about this rare and beautiful baby. How did she die? What was the world around her like 40,000 years ago? Can they extract her DNA, and learn even more about the species she belonged to? And why did she preserve so well, and reappear so long after her death?


Studying such a fragile find is not without its hurdles to overcome. The baby had to be kept below freezing to prevent any decay or bacterial invasions. Tissues this old are incredibly delicate, making an autopsy difficult, to say the least. But one of the greatest parts of this special is watching the painstaking care that the researchers use in studying Lyuba.

But the special doesn't just follow the story of Lyuba and the secrets she can tell about herself the icy Pleistocene era she lived in. It also tells the tale of the man who found her and the intriguing culture to which he belongs. Yuri Khudi and his sons are Nenet, a nomadic people which lives off of herding reindeer and fishing. They are a deeply spiritual tribe, who live much in the way their ancestors have for hundreds of years. Yuri and his family saw the find as a curse or a bad omen. Thankfully, he had the foresight to pass the find along to authorities, who brought together the top experts in the field to explore the baby mammoth.

True to form, National Geogrpahic spared no expense when it came to cinematography and animation to tell the stoy of Lyba's life and the study of her death. From breathtaking images of the frozen expanse where she was found to recreations of the Pleistocene steppes and what little Lyuba might have looked like alive, the special is chock full of amazing visual spectacles sure to draw you in to the amazing story of a baby mammoth whose body has lasted forty thousand years and the people she brought together - scientists from all over the world and the nomadic people who brave the frozen tundra and found her. It's a must-see for any nerd!

3 comments:

Irradiatus said...

This is a beautiful review, Christie! I love how you set the scene.

And wasn't CG Lyuba adoreable? I want a baby mammoth (a real one - stuck forever in the 1 month old stage)!

Christie Lynn said...

OMG I know!!! I just wanted to cuddle up with her. She was so adorable! Like a puppy, but better.

InkRose said...

I must insist on a correction on the term tundra. Or at least its claimed origin. While it's possible that tundra is derived somehow from tunturi, the meaning, I suspect, is not, since tunturi ('fell' in English, at least according to a few reasonable sources. Also close to the Swedish 'fjäll', which means the same thing) means a big treeless hill. Or at least so I've been told since primary school.