I’ve been aiming to write a blog post about the Natural History Museum’s temporary mammoth exhibit for some time, but here it finally is. Unfortunately the exhibit has now closed, but if you didn’t get a chance to visit I hope that this review will be helpful.
As you enter the exhibit you are greeted by a fantastic view of a mammoth skeleton “in situ” and an animation which shows how the landscape in the area has changed over time. It begins to give you an impression of just how huge these creatures were, and that thousands of years ago they could have been walking on the same ground you are standing on right now.
Although I have read about the exploitation of mammoths by Neanderthals and our modern human ancestors, I didn’t realise just how little I knew about them as a species in their own right until I went to this exhibit. The beginning of the exhibit had a great view of the mammoth family tree, and how they are related to elephants and other mammals.
Mammoths are not the ancestors of elephants, but are instead cousins on a larger Elephantidae family. The Elephantidae family started to grow about six million years ago when a branch of them in Africa evolved into three distinct groups: Loxodonta (ancestors of the African elephant), Elephas (ancestors of the Asian elephant), and Mammuthus (the first mammoths).
The exhibit gave you the opportunity to touch some life-size models of the elephant, it’s ancestors, and some extinct members of the extended family tree (Don’t you just love it when a museum has large “please touch!” notices?!). The lovely fellow above is the Moeritherium, which lived in Africa approx 38 – 32 million years ago. It’s long snout is the beginning of what this family (although not this specific branch, they went extinct) would later evolve into a trunk, like we see on the elephants and mammoths. And just to show you how big some of them are, here is my father with one of the other models…
After a handful of games and interactive pieces, we come to the main attraction at this exhibit – the remains of baby Lyuba (pronounced “Loo-ba”), one of the best preserved mammoths found to date. Lyuba is a one month old female woolly mammoth who died approx 42,000 years ago along a river bank on the Yamal Peninsula, Russia, in 2007 by a group of reindeer herders.
Lyuba was well preserved thanks to the fine sediment which quickly buried her body, the acids in the area which prevented bacteria from starting the decomposition process, and the freezing cold temperatures. Thanks to these processes, her internal organs and skin have remained intact and there are still remains of her mother’s milk in her stomach. CT scans of Lyuba have even shown that she still has sediment in her trunk, which gives us clues as to what type of soil might have helped preserve her. Unfortunately, it also shows that she probably died by falling into a mud hole and couldn’t get out (Reference: NHM News, May 2014).
I have not included any pictures of Lyuba, but if you Google her name you will find plenty of pictures of her. [Note: I visited the exhibit several times, it was only after the first few visits that the museum introduced a policy of no photographs of Lyuba. I’m unsure if this was for preservation concerns, or concerns from the shop!]
Since her discovery, researchers have preserved her in a chemical called formalin and extracted any remaining water, which means she can be displayed in the museum without the need for refrigeration. Which is fantastic, because it means she can more easily be transported for research as well as for her first exhibition in the UK (her permanent home is at the Shemanovskiy Museum and Exhibition Centre in Salekhard, Russia).
And then we move onto some full life-sized versions of some extinct mammals, including the Columbian mammoth, a cousin of the woolly mammoth. They lived from approximately 1.6 million to 12,000 years ago, and shared North America with other well extinct species such as sabre-toothed cats.
Here is the American mastodon, which was a shorter and stockier version of their mammoth cousins which lived from around 2 million to 12,000 years ago.Although very similar to mammoths, their ancestors actually branched off from those of the mammoths millions of years ago. Notice a pattern? They disappeared from their last haunt, North America, around the same time as the Columbian mammoth and several other megafaunal species, in what is thought to be over exploitation by modern human hunter-gatherers from the Clovis culture.
Overall the exhibit was very interesting and extremely informative. It was great to see Lyuba on display in the UK for the first time, and I made the most of the opportunity to see her while she was on display. The Natural History Museum is generally a fantastic place, and I highly recommend a visit – even if the mammoths have since departed.
If you want to learn more about mammoths, I recommend the NHM’s “Mammoths: Ice Age Giants” book which accompanied the exhibit. You could also watch Channel 4’s “Woolly Mammoth: The Autopsy” which isn’t about Lyuba, but is about another remarkably preserved mammoth. Click here to watch, available until 22nd December 2014 [accessed 7th December 2014].