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Discovery will aid in mammoth's gene map

July 14, 2007|From Reuters

MOSCOW — The discovery of a baby mammoth preserved in the Russian permafrost gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species extinct since the Ice Age.

"It's a lovely little baby mammoth indeed, found in perfect condition," said Alexei Tikhonov, deputy director of the Russian Academy of Science's Zoological Institute, which has been taking care of the mammoth's corpse since it was uncovered in May.

"This specimen may provide unique material allowing us to ultimately decipher the genetic makeup of the mammoth," he said in an interview with Reuters on Wednesday.

The mammoth, a female who died at the age of 6 months, was dubbed Lyuba, after the wife of reindeer breeder and hunter Yuri Khudi, who found her in Russia's Arctic Yamalo-Nenets region.

It had been in the frozen ground for up to 40,000 years, Tikhonov said.

The hunter initially thought the mammoth was a dead reindeer when he spotted parts of the body sticking out of damp snow.

When he realized it was a mammoth, scientists were called in and transported the body to regional capital Salekhard, where she is now being kept in a special refrigerator.

Weighing 110 pounds, Lyuba is about the size of a large dog.

Tikhonov said the mammoth was remarkably well-preserved -- its shaggy coat was gone, but otherwise it looked as though it had died recently -- and that meant it was a potential treasure trove for scientists.

Tikhonov dismissed suggestions that the mammoth could be cloned.

Cloning can only be done if whole cells are intact, but the freezing conditions will have caused the cells to burst, he said.

Tikhonov said the next stop on Lyuba's odyssey would be the Zoological Museum in St Petersburg.

There, Lyuba will join a male baby mammoth called Dima that was unearthed in Magadan in Russia's Far East in 1977.

"They will make a nice couple, both roughly aged 40,000 years," Tikhonov said.

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