Sonntag, 15. März 2009

Mummy Zoo

One classic movie-monster is without doubt the „mummy“, mostly of egyptian provenience and also of human shape (despite the fact that thousend of egyptian animal mummies are known). This intact corpses and the effort behind their conservation is fascinating even for us today. But there are not only artificial mummies, nature knows a lot of ways to „make mummies“. Corpses can be conservated in bog deposits- to acid for decomposing organism, or tar pits – to poorly oxiginated, or permafrost- to cold for an effective decomposition of organic matter.

Replication of the "Starunia Woolly rhinoceros" - mummy.

Mummies of extinct mammals of the ice age provide a variety of reserach – taxonomic relations and dispersal history can be studied trough the ancient DNA, the structure of soft tissue can be observed in detail, paleodiet can be inferred by the gut contents and feces, some animals shows pathological deformations or tissue changes and/or parasites, on some carcasses even the circumstances of the death can be observed and finally the surrounding findings can give clues for reconstructing the paleohabitat and the climate.

At least 16 species of ice age mammals have been found mummified complete or partially: woolly mammoth, Shasta, Jefferson´s and Patagonian ground sloth, woolly rhinoceros, Yukon horse, steppe bison, helmeted muskox, Harrington´s mountain goat, caribou, giant moose, black-footed ferret, collared pika, snowshoe hare, arctic ground squirrel and vole. From this species the best preserved and known examples are the 40.000 year old mammoth calf „Dima“, the 10.000 years old Shasta ground sloth from New Mexico, the 36.000 year old „Blue Babe“ bison, a 40.000 year old subadult helmeted muskox, a woolly rhinoceros from the Ukraine and a 40.000 year old black-footed ferret from the Yukon territory.
Most of this cited animals are preserved by freeze-drying in permafrost of Siberia, Alaska and Kanada. The ground sloths and mountain goats despite are preserved in cave deposits – perhaps the dry conditions of their habitats were mainly responsible for the good preservation. The mummies of Starunia, in the Ukraine (woolly rhinoceros and mammoth) are an exception, here the bodys were „pickled“ in salty groundwater and coated by natural occurring mineral waxes. It´s clear that the preservation and the taphonomy of this different faunal assemblages show some affinities, but also great differences.

The mummies of siberian woolly mammoths were the first discoveries of this kind, with the famous expedition that recovered the Berezovka mammoth in 1901, but local legends of „elephant like moles“ found in the high arctic are much older. The Berezovka mammoth was preserved very well, unfortunately between the discovery (1900) and the recovery (1901) some parts were scavenged and some bones broken.

The expedition was lead by Dr. Otto Herz and Eugen Pfizenmayer – zoologist of the Russian Academy of Science. The 29.000-33.000 years old mammoth – described by the two researches „stinking like a horse barn, mixed with the smell of a rotting carcass“ was a 35-40 old male, „sitting“ on the ground. Herz and Pfizenmayer deduced from different broken bones (rips, bladebone and pelvis) that the animal broke trough thin ice and was entrapped in a fissure. Then a mudslide engulfed the poor animal, causing death by suffocation, showed by the presence of plants still in the mouth and the erigated penis. Today the broken bones are interpreted to be a postmortem taphonomic event, caused by a landslide or crep of the material around the body.

The preserved penis of the mammoth.

To be continued...

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