The frightening last moments of two baby mammoths that died thousands of years ago are now being revealed, thanks to CT scanning.
The 1- and 2-month-old woolly mammoth calves, which were discovered in different portions of Siberia, choked on mud after falling into water more than 40,000 years ago, new research suggests.
The mud was like a "really thick batter that they got clogged in their trachea and they were unable to dislodge by coughing," said study co-author Daniel Fisher, the director of the University of Michigan Museum of Paleontology. "It basically prevented them from taking them another breath." [See Images of the Baby Woolly Mammoths]
Woolly mammoths, close relatives of modern-day elephants, arose about 5.1 million years ago in Africa and went extinct about 10,000 years ago. Though scientists don't know for sure why they disappeared, warming weather and overhunting by humans may have doomed the shaggy beasts. During the last ice age, between 110,000 and 12,000 years ago, however, they roamed throughout Eurasia and North America.
The 1-month-old calf mummy, named Lyuba, was discovered in 2007 by a reindeer herder on the banks of a frozen river on the Yamal Peninsula in Siberia. Lactic acid-producing bacteria had colonized Lyuba's body, essentially "pickling" her and making her unappetizing to would-be scavengers, Fisher said.
A mammoth-ivory hunter found the second mummy, which researchers named Khroma after the river in Yakutia in which she was found, frozen upright in permafrost. Scavengers — possibly Arctic foxes and ravens — devoured Khroma's heart and lungs, as well as parts of the trunk and skull, between the time she was discovered in 2008 and the time scientists could retrieve her body, Fisher said.
Each of the mummies still had a distinctive neonatal line on their teeth, a dark line that forms during birth, because the stress of delivery temporary halts tooth development. By counting the tooth growth layers after the neonatal line, the team estimated that Lyuba was about 1 month old and Khroma 2 months old at death, Fisher said.
The team got permission to perform computed tomography (CT) scanning, as well as some limited dissection of the body. [Image Gallery: Stunning Mammoths Unearthed]
Lyuba (which means "love" in Russian) was plump and healthy at death.