ON TV: National Geographic's Waking the Baby Mammoth airs in the United States on Sunday, April 26, at 9 p.m. ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.
April 20, 2009—Fecal residue and traces of prehistoric milk have been found in the digestive track of an almost perfectly preserved baby mammoth, according to a new analysis.
Lyuba—a one-month-old mammoth that died 40,000 years ago—has been gently poked, prodded, and scanned by an international team of scientists since she was discovered two years ago in the Russian Arctic. The calf appears to have perished when she either drowned or was suffocated in mud near the edge of a river.
The baby mammoth underwent computer tomography (CT) scans last year and more recently had her tissue, bone, and teeth analyzed. (Watch video below of the scientists examining the baby mammoth's insides.)
Milk residue found during the latter analysis, combined with a fat hump on the back of her neck, indicate that the baby mammoth was healthy and well fed, said team member Daniel Fisher of the University of Michigan.
The hump generated heat and was used by baby mammoths to stay warm during the first months of their lives, Fisher added.
"This is the first time we have a really healthy, 'in the pink' animal," Fisher said. "We've had adults with wheelbarrows full of soft tissue, but none as complete as [Lyuba]." Previously found baby mammoths had been unhealthy and essentially starved, he said.
The fecal material found in Lyuba's intestine was likely her mother's, fed to the baby to establish a healthy microbial community in her gut—key to proper digestion. Such behavior is common in modern herbivores.
"We are learning more about what [mammoths] ate and how to recognize animals that are healthy versus stressed," Fisher said.
Further analysis of Lyuba's teeth may offer clues as to what caused many Ice Age mammals to vanish at the end of the Pleistocene epoch, about 10,000 years ago, according to the researchers. (Explore a prehistoric time line.)
"This line of investigation is a tool by which we'll be able to solve the late Pleistocene extinction," Fisher said. "We'll be able to distinguish between the two main competitors: climate change and hunting."
Read more about the baby mammoth in the May 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.