TOKYO – Frozen in much the state it died some 37,500 years ago, a Siberian mammoth undergoing tests in Japan could finally explain why the beasts were driven to extinction — and shed light on climate change, scientists said Friday.
The calf, unearthed in May by a reindeer herder in northern Siberia's remote Yamal-Nenets autonomous region, is virtually intact and even has some fur, though the tail and ear of the animal dubbed "Lyuba" were apparently bitten off.
"Lyuba's discovery is an historic event," said Bernard Buigues, vice president of the Geneva-based International Mammoth Committee. "It could tell us why this species didn't survive ... and shed light on the fate of human beings."
The last of the ancient beasts are thought to have roamed the earth from about 4.8 million years ago to 4,000 years ago, and researchers have debated whether their demise was due to climate change or over-hunting by humans.
"This is what we've all been waiting for — the chance to explain everything about the mammoth," said Naoki Suzuki of the Jikei University School of Medicine, who is leading the first phase of an international study of the carcass's structure.
"Our findings will be a big step toward resolving the mystery of their extinction," Suzuki told a press conference in Tokyo.
The 4-foot gray-and-brown mammoth underwent a computed tomography scan that produced 3-D pictures with an almost surgical view, Suzuki said.
Lyuba, which appeared to have died with no external wounds and was discovered still frozen, is the best preserved mammoth yet unearthed, according to Sergey Grishin, director of the Shemanovsky Yamal-Nenets Museum.
Scientists hope to analyze the 3-D data to get a better picture of the mammoth's internal organs and structure, as well as for clues on the baby's diet and why it died, Grishin said.
They will also analyze tiny air samples left in Lyuba's lungs for clues to the earth's atmosphere during the last Ice Age.
Scientists from Japan, the United States, Canada, Russia and other European countries are slated to take part in the research. Preliminary results were expected in October.
Meanwhile, at a display in central Tokyo, children peered into a freezer displaying Lyuba's shriveled body. The mammoth is on display until late February.
"It looked amazing, almost like it was alive," said 10-year-old Chikara Shimizu.
"Maybe they found Lyuba because the ice in Siberia is melting from global warming," said Chikara's father, Misao Shimizu. "I find that very worrying."
Akito Arima, head of the Science Museum in Tokyo where Lyuba is on display, said global warming may be a reason the mammoth was discovered now, but he gave no details.
Permafrost — earth that remains frozen year-round — lies under much of Siberia but scientists fear that global warming will cause it to melt and could accelerate climate change by releasing large amounts of warming carbon dioxide gases into the atmosphere.