Mammoth Prospecting

By Flemming, Clare | Natural History, December/January 1998 | Go to article overview

Mammoth Prospecting


Flemming, Clare, Natural History


On August 3, our team of researchers led by Ross MacPhee, chairman of the Museum's Department of Mammalogy, departed from the Siberian mainland in a huge Russian helicopter bound for Wrangel Island. Joined by Jeff Saunders, of the Illinois State Museum, and our Russian colleagues Alexei Tikhonov and Sergey Vartanyan, we spent the next eighteen days on this 2,000-square-mile island, well north of the Arctic Circle. Our goal? To test a new idea about what may have caused the catastrophic extinctions of mammals at the end of the last ice age. Unconvinced by theories that these extinctions were the result of climate change or overhunting, Ross and virologist Preston Marx, of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, had come up with the hyperdisease hypothesis: as human populations expanded and colonized new landmasses during the Pleistocene, they brought with them virulent pathogens that wiped out native animals.

Where could we go to test this hypothesis? We picked Wrangel Island because woolly mammoths had survived there longer than anywhere else on earth. Whereas all other Mammuthus primigenius had become extinct by 10,000 years ago, the population on Wrangel persisted an additional 6,000 years. In other words, these mammoths roamed the tundra while Pharaoh Sesostris I was building his shrines at Thebes more than 3,500 years ago. Because Wrangel's mammoths were such late survivors, we thought that if a deadly virus could be detected, their fossil remains would be the likeliest to have retained traces of it.

Getting to Wrangel was not easy-- after flying from New York to Saint Petersburg and taking a series of trains and buses to a military base in a Moscow suburb, we boarded an Ilyushin turboprop for a ten-hour flight to the Siberian coastal settlement of Mys Shmidta, a hundred sea miles south of our goal. Our six days of traveling spanned sixteen time zones. A local jailbreak and an ensuing rash of murders in Mys Shmidta kept us there another four days before a helicopter could take us to the island.

Once on Wrangel, we took an excruciating four-hour truck ride up riverbeds and made camp on the north side of the island in an eight-by-seventeen-foot cabin that sheltered the five of us, all our gear, all our food, and all the fossils we would collect. Outside our door, miles and miles of soggy, beautiful, lonely tundra stretched to the horizon. …

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