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CT Scans of Baby Mammoths Reveal Ice Age Mystery

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Baby woolly mammoth CT scan

CT scan of baby woolly mammoth named Lyuba

LAS VEGAS—Computed tomography (CT) scans of two extraordinarily well-preserved baby woolly mammoths from Siberia have yielded startling new insights into these iconic Ice Age beasts. Previously examinations of the external features of the mammoths suggested that the two creatures were quite similar, exhibiting the same developmental stage and similar age at death. But the new full-body scans—the first ever obtained for largely intact mammoths—tell a different story. Researchers unveiled the new findings on November 5 at the annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

Both of the baby mammoths—dubbed Lyuba and Khroma–were recovered from Siberian permafrost, hence their remarkable state of preservation, which includes hair, skin and internal organs. Lyuba, discovered in 2007, died around 42,000 years ago; Khroma, found in 2009, is geologically older, although experts have yet to determine exactly when this individual lived.

CT scan of baby mammoths Lyuba and Khroma

CT scan of baby mammoths Lyuba and Khroma

Although the two babies look alike on the outside, the CT scans showed dramatic differences in the shape of the skull and limb bones. According to Ethan Shirley of the University of Michigan, lead author of the new study, Khroma’s face is wider and more robust than Lyuba’s and has a boney structure at the tip of the upper jaw that looks like a mustache; Lyuba, meanwhile, has longer forelimbs.

Skull of baby mammoth Khroma

CT of baby woolly mammoth Khroma's skull

Although the CT results were surprising, Shirley and his colleagues thought they had an explanation. Physical examination had established that Lyuba was female, and suggested that Khroma was male. So the researchers initially chalked up the newly observed differences in internal anatomy to variation between the sexes. But when they took a closer look at the sex organs in the CT scans, they found features of the soft tissues of the urogenital tract that indicate Khroma was actually a female.

The new results “complicate our view of mammoth development” and suggests that there may be more variability in developmental timing than previously thought, remarks team member Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan. The differences between the two female baby mammoths could indicate that they belonged to different species. Alternatively, woolly mammoth anatomy may have varied through time and from region to region.


Images courtesy of International Mammoth Committee; CT scans by Ford Motor Company, USA, and Centre hospitalier Emile Roux, Le Puy-en-Velay, France

Kate Wong About the Author: Kate Wong is an editor and writer at Scientific American covering paleontology, archaeology and life sciences. Follow on Twitter @katewong.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. RuthShaw 9:25 pm 11/5/2011

    Check this work from home offer – C A S H S H A R P . C O M

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  2. 2. 1:11 am 11/6/2011

    Bring the woolly mammoth back!
    I opened a facebook petition, world have your say.

    Link to this
  3. 3. promytius 10:28 am 11/6/2011

    The more I read the more I want to change the word “science” into speculation. Blind men with elephants… any fifth grade science student will tell you one or two instances does not a trend make, and all you get from one dead mammoth or one dead Lucy is info on one thing, not its entire genus and species. This is why after hundreds of years of science we’ve can now account for a whopping 4% of everything; well it’s a start, but just because a couple of good bone sets show up, it’s all speculation until we get about 300 samples or more, before we go making any assumptions or generalizations about any one thing being studied.
    It’s fantastic to find these ancient dead things for people who only care about dead things; I’ve got a grocery bill and a rent bill and a heat bill that just somehow are going to demand more of my attention than a couple of wooly cuties. Keep up the great science.

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  4. 4. Pugsley 1:31 pm 11/6/2011

    Well if you don’t like science, Promytius, maybe you shouldn’t spend so much time reading Scientific American articles. There’s always NASCAR racing or Bible studies for people like you!

    Link to this
  5. 5. quincykim 2:14 pm 11/6/2011

    There are two key words at the very top of the page: “Blogs”, which means this is not an actual article, and “Observations” with the additional text “Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American”.

    This is not a final report based on a broad sampling, and doesn’t pretend to be. It’s more a glimpse into the scientific findings and resulting observations and speculations (and updating of same) on the way to more defensible conclusions. Give them a break. And try paying attention to what kind of item you are reading before getting your hackles up over a perceived breach of trust. I speak as one who’s been there and learned my lesson, BTW.

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  6. 6. edromar 6:10 pm 11/7/2011

    quincykim: Until we know when these animals lived and what was their age at death, we hhave no way to know whether or not they were both mammoths (neither was wolly) and wheter they were of the same species or not, or whether or not one was an elephant and the other a columbian mammoth!Depending on when they lived and died, whether or not the weather was what we think it was, when. All answers to all questions must be known simultaneously!
    Edward C. Marshall

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  7. 7. RickRay 9:27 pm 11/7/2011

    Some people would rather teach intelligent design (which is basically an oxymoron) and creationism in science classes. Magic and the supernatural explain everything. God did it! Give me a break. Time to come into the 21st century. Research shows that christianity took its ideas from pagan religions mostly from the Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Norse, Hindu religions. Science doesn’t claim to know it all and will be the first to admit that they’re wrong about an idea. Science loves being wrong because it shows PROGRESS! Shit, I’m so tired of the negativity that religion keeps dumping on science. Next time you’re sick try praying instead of taking meds and see what happens. Make sure you thank a doctor or nurse for curing you instead of thanking an imaginary
    sky-daddy. As a realist would say, “Grow up”.

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  8. 8. hungry doggy 4:33 pm 11/10/2011

    It could be that this was a highly variable quickly evolving species and that these two specimens came from populations that were geographically isolated from each other and separated in time. Perhaps DNA testing could tell more.

    Just speculating, but perhaps there is a lesson in this for studying human evolution. Some of the different species of early hominids that are distinguished by minor differences in bone anatomy may actually have just local variations in the same species.

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  9. 9. GrannyM 8:39 pm 11/10/2011

    I know this isn’t an actual study, but my thought was that one of the baby mammoths could have a birth deformity. Unless they find more babies to compare we may never know but, interesting anyway.

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  10. 10. Quinn the Eskimo 1:58 am 11/14/2011

    Perhaps even more intriguing is this: Did all the baby mammoths sound like Ray Romano? Cuz, well, it’s a good question.


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