In May 2007, two brothers were gathering firewood in Siberia when they made a remarkable discovery. On the banks of the Yuribei River, in the remote Yamal Peninsula, lay the body of a woolly mammoth so well preserved that it looked, at first glance, as though it were sleeping. Their father, a nomadic herder, was worried the creature was from the underworld and could bring bad luck. Despite his reservations, he sensed it was an important discovery and alerted the director of Russia’s Shemanovsky Museum.
Soon the entire world knew about the 42,000-year-old baby. The mini-mammoth inspired a National Geographic documentary, Waking the Baby Mammoth, in 2009, and headlined a 2010 exhibition at the Field Museum in Chicago. Nearly five years after she was discovered on that riverbank in snowy Siberia, Lyuba, meaning “love” in Russian, finally made her debut in Asia at Hong Kong’s I Love Lyuba: Baby Mammoth of the Ice Age exhibition.
(MORE: The Woolly Mammoth’s Return? Scientists Plan to Clone Extinct Creature)
Weighing in at 110 lb., the 3-ft.-tall Lyuba is missing a couple of toenails and an ear but is otherwise perfectly preserved. Lyuba was just one month old when she died, and samples of her last meal — her mother’s milk and dung — remain in her stomach. “Lyuba is a creature straight out of a fairy tale. When you look at her, it’s hard to understand how she could have stayed in such good condition for nearly 40,000 years,” Alexei Tikhonov, from the Russian Academy of Science, told the Telegraph.
Bernard Buigues, French explorer and head of the Mammuthus project, which explores, excavates and conserves fossils found in Siberia’s permafrost, says the perennially frozen ground kept the little creature safe over the years. He says scientists aren’t sure how Lyuba ended up lying visibly on the ground, but they believe she most likely drowned in river mud, froze in a piece of ice, floated to the surface and then melted, thanks to global warming.
(MORE: Japanese Scientist Says We’ll Have Mammoths by 2015)
Although mammoths died out roughly 10,000 years ago, Lyuba and two other well-preserved carcasses, Yuka and Khroma, have helped scientists explain how the animals went extinct. Evidence of human aggression found on Yuka’s body led scientists to believe overhunting had as much to do with their extinction as climate change. Our Stone Age ancestors likely slaughtered the creatures for their teeth, tusks, fur and skin, the BBC reported. “Ultimately, the mammoths could not reproduce quickly enough because they were constantly running from the humans and on the move, searching for food,” Buigues explains.
Scientists compare the findings from Lyuba, Yuka and Khroma to the plight of today’s elephants, which are threatened by poachers, globalization and climate change. “Even if you have a strong, huge species that weighs a lot and looks like it can carry rocks, they are also incredibly fragile,” Buigues says. “Changing just one or two elements of their habitat can throw everything off.” As temperatures continue to rise, Buigues expects an uptick in discoveries: not just more mammoths but rhinos, dogs and horses too. “The best partner for paleontologists is climate change,” Buigues says. “It’s just very terrible for anyone else.”