Magazine article The New Yorker

Woolly

Magazine article The New Yorker

Woolly

Article excerpt

The Yamal-Nenets autonomous region, a part of Russia in northwestern Siberia mostly above the Arctic Circle and mostly surrounded by the Arctic Ocean, has six hundred and fifty thousand people and seven hundred thousand reindeer. It is about ten per cent bigger than Texas. To the rest of Russia and the world, the region offers natural gas, oil, chrome, manganese, bauxite, gold, fish, reindeer meat, and mammoths. Tons of mammoth ivory, and many of the mammoth specimens in museums, come from the Yamal Peninsula. Summer there lasts about seven weeks, but recently, as elsewhere, out-of-cycle warm spells have been shaking things up. During one of these, in May of 2007, a reindeer herder named Yuri Khudi saw what he thought was a dead reindeer calf lying on the tundra. On closer observation, he noticed that it had a trunk.

What Yuri Khudi had found was a woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) that was a month old when she died, about forty-two thousand years ago. She was a dark grayish-brown, weighed about a hundred pounds, and still possessed her original features, including belly hair. The circumstances of her death--just the right preservative chemistry in the muck she fell into, subsequent enclosure in permafrost--combined with the lucky fact that Khudi happened upon her before decomposition had begun, made her the best-preserved mammoth ever discovered. She was named Lyuba, for Khudi's wife. From the tundra, Lyuba was taken to the Shemanovskii Regional Museum and Exhibition Complex, in Salekhard, the region's capital, and from there she has continued on a sort of triumphal tour to other museums, such as the Zoological Museum, in St. Petersburg; the Field Museum, in Chicago; and (most recently) the Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City. With her American wanderings, she has repeated the pattern set by her relatives millennia ago: Mammuthus primigenius was the only species of mammoth to cross from Siberia into North America.

At the Liberty Science Center, Lyuba was met by another arrival from Russia: Anna Zeldin, who immigrated to Jersey City from Moscow in 1992. Zeldin, a longtime volunteer at the museum, is a petite, white-haired seventy-three-year-old with a Ph.D. in physical chemistry and a strong sense, once common in the Cold War, of the essential role of science. Somehow, no translator had accompanied the mammoth's eight-person retinue, so the Science Center asked Zeldin to fill in. "We couldn't have done it without her," Ellen Lynch, the museum's director of exhibition development and operations, told a friend of Zeldin's as they were admiring the exhibit, "Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age," in which Lyuba stars. …

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