A man takes a detailed look at Lyuba

Rare woolly mammoth on display at the Royal B.C. Museum

The story of one of the most well preserved specimens in existence is a sad but remarkable tale, according to scientists.

The story of one of the most well preserved specimens in existence is a sad but remarkable tale, according to scientists.

Roughly 40,000 years ago, a baby woolly mammoth was separated from her mother in the Yamal Peninsula in Russia. Just a month old, the 110-pound female baby got trapped in mud along the banks of a river. As she struggled to free herself, the baby’s trunk quickly filled with silt and her body was covered by sediment. She eventually died of suffocation.

Thousands of years later in 2007, she was found by a Siberian reindeer herder and two of his sons, almost perfectly preserved in the frozen soil of the Arctic. The herder then travelled 1,000 kilometres to the nearest town to report his find to the local museum.

The baby woolly mammoth was named Lyuba (pronounced LOO-bah) after the herder’s wife and is the best preserved specimen in existence.

“It was winter and her carcass was frozen so that’s why baby Lyuba is so unique because she is the most intact specimen,” said Dr. Tatyana Koptseva, director with the Yamal-Nenets Regional Museum Exhibition Complex in Russia, through a translator. “She is one of only six finds in the world that are in such exceptional condition.”

Shortly after Lyuba was found, an international team of Russian, French, Japanese and American scientists performed DNA analysis, an autopsy and used X-ray technologies to explore her anatomy and physiology.

Not only was her body well preserved, so were her internal organs, which revealed she was relatively healthy when she died. In her intestines, scientists found milk from her mother, pollen from grasses and other plants (suggesting Lyuba lived in a nearly tree-less environment) algae from lake water, and mammoth dung which elephants fed to the calves to introduce bacteria that will help digest plants.

Scientists found that Lyuba’s body had been preserved by lactic-acid-producing bacteria that colonized her body after death. The microbial process “pickled” her soft tissue and worked with freezing to preserve her carcass.

Since her discovery, Lyuba (whose home is the Yamal-Nenets Regional Museum Exhibition Complex in Russia), has travelled to various museums around the world in the United States, London and Hong Kong.

Now, Victorians will have the opportunity to see Lyuba at the Royal B.C. Museum as part of the new exhibition Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age beginning June 3.

“This is one of the most exciting moments of my professional career,” said Jack Lohman, CEO of the museum.

“You can see her little eyes, her hair and her beautiful trunk. When this continent was connected to Siberia by the Bering Land Bridge, mammoths just like Lyuba would have been found all over British Columbia, including right here in Victoria.”

The interactive exhibition also features immersive multimedia, real mammoth tusks and mastodon teeth, as well as life-sized models of mastodons, short-faced bears and giant sloths that roamed parts of British Columbia from 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago.

Dr. Richard Hebda, curator of botany and earth history with the museum, said the exhibition shines a spotlight on the Ice Age in British Columbia, educating people about where ice was  and the types of creatures that roamed Vancouver Island centuries ago.

“Much of the landscape and land forms we see around here were shaped by the Ice Age, by glaciers flowing through the fiords, over the tops of mountains, stuff melting and leaving big gravel deposits. At the same time as that was going on, when there wasn’t as much ice, there were all sorts of Ice Age creatures,” Hebda said, adding his personal favourite is the re-creation of a short-faced bear.

“We have a fantastic record of the life of the Ice Age here on southern Vancouver Island . . . We’re going to tell a story that’s just as spectacular as the story in Europe.”

Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age runs until Dec. 31. For more information visit royalbcmuseum.bc.ca.