Say hello to Lyuba, a flawlessly preserved 42,000-year-old infant mammoth. It’s small wonder that she’s incredibly important to scientists, and yet she presented a unique problem for researchers hoping to display her around the world: how on Earth would they move her? Eventually, though, they came up with an altogether unique solution.
First, however, a little bit more about this prehistoric baby. Lyuba is, in fact, the single most complete preserved mammoth known to science. Yet while she’s proving extraordinarily useful to us in death, her life was sadly somewhat less inspiring.
Indeed, it was a life cut all too short. Lyuba met her traumatic end when she was just 35 days old – peanuts when you consider that members of her species could reach the age of 60 years or more.
And, since she was a baby when she died, Lyuba was, at least by woolly mammoth standards, incredibly small. In fact, at 51 inches long and 33 inches tall, she was only slightly bigger than your average dog.
Adding to the pathos of the story, Lyuba’s death wasn’t exactly a swift one, either. After examining her corpse, scientists have determined that the mammoth plunged to a muddy end while her herd crossed a river bank.
Lyuba’s oesophagus, trachea, mouth and trunk are completely blocked with mud, which suggests that in her final moments she would have been unable to breathe. Indeed, the consensus is that Lyuba died of asphyxiation.
Having fallen into the muddy hole, then, Lyuba found herself unable to get out. Quite simply, she lacked the body strength required. She was, after all, only an infant. And there lies the tragic side to this story.
Pip Brewer, curator of fossils and mammals at London’s Natural History Museum, told the Daily Mail that mammoths likely mourned members of their herd that died, much as elephants do today. While Lyuba’s story is somewhat tragic, then, it’s slightly comforting to know that she was missed by her kin.
Lyuba was first made known to scientists in 2007 after a reindeer herder in Siberia stumbled upon her remains. Yuri Khudi was exploring the Yuribei River with his sons when he found the baby mammoth’s ancient body.
Then, with help from his friend and the police, Khudi had the mammoth taken to the Shemanovskiy Museum in Salekhard. And to honor the herder’s donation, Lyuba was named for Khudi’s wife, with the moniker meaning “love” in Russian.
Now, aside from her respiratory orifices having been clogged with dirt, Lyuba was actually remarkably healthy when she died. Furthermore, all her organs and skin remain completely intact and in superb condition.
In fact, the scientists who examined Lyuba’s perfectly preserved body even found residues of her mother’s milk in her stomach. Unfortunately, however, most of the fur that once covered the mammoth was lost over the millennia.
Still, aside from the loss of fur, Lyuba’s preservation was astonishing to behold. The mud that trapped her ultimately covered her, burying her completely and cutting off any oxygen – meaning she didn’t decompose.
It’s a good thing she was so well preserved, too. As the prime example of a woolly mammoth specimen, Lyuba has traveled around a lot in the past nine years.
Since her time on display at the Shemanovskiy Museum, she has been taken to exhibitions in Chicago and Hong Kong. And in 2014 she joined an exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London.
Moving Lyuba around was no easy feat, however. Even with her diminutive size, scientists had to be careful not to damage the specimen in any way. As a result, a unique method of transport was devised.
Yes, Lyuba now travels in style – inside a specially designed padded case. Movie fans may draw parallels with the image of Han Solo frozen in carbonite in The Empire Strikes Back, though Lyuba would no doubt be far more comfortable than that were she alive.
Now, Lyuba is on display at the Royal BC Museum in Victoria, Canada. She’s part of the Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age exhibit, alongside mastodons and dire wolves.
When she’s not traveling to other exhibits all over the world, though, Lyuba is stationed permanently at her home. Or, at least, the closest thing the long-dead mammoth could call home: Siberia’s Shemanovskiy Museum.
Lyuba may not have had the longest or greatest of lives, but in death she is unique. More than 40,000 years on from that fateful tumble into the mud patch, the woolly mammoth now travels the world in something akin to luxury.