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Science With a Smile: The “Awww” Factor


Nobody doesn’t like a baby (apologies to Sara Lee).

Kittens, puppies, downy ducklings, human infants, and now the newest paleontological star, baby Nun Cho Ga, a month-old woolly mammoth; we adore them all. It makes no difference that baby Nun alive weighed 300 pounds and probably stood more than three feet tall.

Over 30,000 years ago in the late Pleistocene, she wandered into a mud hole during a storm and never made it out. Her misfortune is our good luck, for she is perfectly preserved – fur, flesh, and internal organs, possibly even the remains of her last meal (likely mother’s milk and a few nibbles of plants) - and paleontologists are licking their chops. Like baby elephants, baby mammoths are coprophagous (See note), so scientists may also learn what plants her mother was eating and what kind of gut bacteria she harbored.

Woolly mammoths were well equipped to thrive in the cold. Their three-quarter inch thick hides covered more than 2 inches of body fat, all of which was insulated by a double fur coat. The annual spring shedding event must have been remarkable to see

Baby Nun surfaced in a territory belonging to one of Canada’s First Nations; her name means Big Baby Animal in the Hӓa language of these Yukon natives. A miner running a front-end loader struck something unusual. He called his boss, who called the experts. With great excitement at this extraordinary find, the Native Americans celebrated with a special blessing ceremony, inviting scientists, miners, and local officials to share in the event. The baby was quickly returned to the safety of cold storage to await careful planning about how she will be studied. Paleontologists and other scientists will work with the first Nation elders and Yukon officials to learn all they can from her preserved body.

No doubt one of the research criteria will be to do as little destructive testing as possible. X-rays, CT scans, and laser probes will tell us a lot without harming the body. Should there be recoverable DNA, the possibility exists of creating a living woolly mammoth. Considering the rapid melting of the permafrost, and the subsequent instability of tundra soils, this is probably not a good time to return to the environment an animal that weighs 4 to 6 tons and stands 10 feet tall at maturity.

Baby Nun’s Pleistocene relatives were 99.9% identical to Asian elephants (not African) and more distantly related to mastodons, though both mastodons and mammoths were elephant-like in shape and social structure. Mammoths shared their territory with cave lions and giant bison, wandering long distances to feed on grasses, sedges, and shrubs with which to stoke their gigantic bodies. They lived for 60 to 80 years, which was probably a lot longer than the lifespans of the contemporaneous early humans. Yukon mammoths existed until about 5 thousand years ago.

Were it not for the melting Arctic permafrost in a Klondike gold mine, we might never have found this baby. Had the miner not recognized an unusual find, had his overseer not known to call in the experts, this opportunity for scientific discovery would have been lost. There may be many more such burials waiting to be uncovered in the meltdown across the top of the world. For now, the scientific community can only hold its breath in awe at what we might learn from baby Nun Cho Ga.

Note: Coprophagous is a scientifically delicate word used to describe animal babies that eat their mother’s excrement. Sounds yucky to us, but it is nature’s way of insuring that they get the intestinal bacteria they will need to digest grasses and sedges as adults.

Marion M. (Martie) Kyde Ph.D. is a mycologist living in Tinicum Township. She is glad that her household animals do not engage in coprophagous behavior.