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National Geographic ChannelNat Geo Wild


Q. When did you know you wanted to study palaeontology? What drew you to mammoths in particular?
A. I began studying palaeontology in high school, thanks to a dedicated and enthusiastic biology teacher. I did not begin with an interest in mammoths but started working on them after coming to teach in Michigan, where many mammoths and mastodons have been found. What attracted me most about these animals was the prospect that the structure and composition of their tusks could provide clues about their ecology and extinction.

Q. At what point were you informed about Lyuba’s discovery, and how did you get involved with the research team?
A. I heard about Lyuba about two weeks after she was found, shortly after mammoth expert Bernard Buigues learned of her. I have collaborated with him and Dr. Alexei Tikhonov on mammoth research for about a decade, so we were already in close contact.

Q. What is it like to work with a creature that walked the earth over 40,000 years ago?
A. Relative to the age of fossils that most palaeontologists study, 40,000 years is not so old. But anything that comes from a time this remote cannot help but affect your perspective on life today. You realise that for all the differences between life then and now, the really important things have not changed much. This frees you to focus on some of the bigger questions about our world and life in it.

Q. How many other mammoths have been discovered, and what makes this mammoth different?
A. If we are talking about moderately complete mammoths with some preservation of soft tissues, the number would be around a couple dozen specimens. But tens of thousands of specimens have been found with just teeth and bones remaining. What makes Lyuba different from any of these is the quality and completeness of her preservation. Though she is not large, no other specimen preserves this much of the original anatomy. That makes her a remarkable scientific resource.

Q. Where did you travel with Lyuba?
A. I first travelled to examine Lyuba in Salekhard, Russia — near where she was found — at the museum that is now her long-term home. I next met up with her in Tokyo, where the CT scanning was done, and later in Saint Petersburg, where we did the investigative surgery and removal of samples for analysis elsewhere.