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Thursday, October 21, 1999 Published at 19:07 GMT 20:07 UK


Mammoth comes in from the cold

The creature was discovered on the Taimyr Peninsula

BBC reporter Robert Piggot: Scientists hope one day to clone a mammoth
An international scientific team is examining the remains of an adult woolly mammoth, which has been preserved for 23,000 years in the frozen wastes of Siberia.

"We camped in the tundra during a severe frost - it was 10 or 15 degrees below zero - and with the help of local people, we excavated a block of frozen ground," said Alexei Tikhonov, of the Zoological Institute in Russia's second city of St Petersburg.

The team has stressed that, contrary to earlier media reports, the mammoth is not a complete specimen.

"That's wrong; it's a mistake," said Mr Tikhonov, who is also the scientific secretary of the mammoth committee of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

[ image: Age can be determined by counting the enamel strips on an upper molar]
Age can be determined by counting the enamel strips on an upper molar
He described the team's main achievement as having developed a technique that could enable a whole mammoth to be retrieved in one piece. "I think it's a technical success," he added.

"In our opinion there's a lot of mammoth wool, probably some bones inside and a piece of skin."

The month-long expedition included Dutch, French and United States experts. The remains, encased in a 20-tonne block of ice and soil, with two huge, curled tusks jutting out, were flown on Sunday, slung beneath a helicopter, 320km (200 miles) to Khatanga, inside the Arctic Circle.

The scientists are using a dry, cold cave at Khatanga to continue their studies.

The mammoth has been dubbed "Zharkov", after the local man who first discovered its head sticking out of the ice in 1997. It is three metres (9ft) tall, male, and pobably died when it was aged 47.

[ image: You can still see its hair]
You can still see its hair

Some scientists hope it might be possible to bring the great beasts back to life using modern cloning techniques. This would involve inserting mammoth DNA into the empty egg cell of an elephant.

But Tikhonov said such hopes remained out of reach for now. "During thousands and thousands of years of preservation in permafrost, dehydration destroyed the chains of DNA. Now we only have very small parts of the DNA chains," he said.

His pessimism is shared by Dr Adrian Lister, a palaeontologist at University College London. "I never say never," he told the BBC.

"Maybe they will find, at a later instance, a carcass whose conditions of burial were just right and such that cells have been preserved to a sufficient degree. But it remains to be shown."

It is thought the best chance of finding well-preserved mammoth DNA, the molecule that holds the creature's genetic instructions for life, will be on the island of Wrangel, off the Siberian coast, near Alaska.

Until radio carbon dating showed mammoth remains found on Wrangel were 3,000 years old, scientists had thought they died out 10,000 years ago.

The herbivore, which would have looked like a hairy elephant to the modern eye, was probably killed off when increasingly-prolonged periods of wet weather eradicated the mammoths' food - dry vegetation.

[ image: The project has proven new excavation techniques]
The project has proven new excavation techniques

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