Mulling Mammoths and Mastodons

Monday, January 07, 2013
How many of us see fossils and yearn to know what actually lived and breathed in those bones the thousands or millions of years before humans stumbled across them? The chance to actually see that creature — what it looked like, how it behaved, what it smelled and felt like — is a wish that one tucks away into the folds of the impossible. We can only guess at the details of its physical and emotional being.

But the Museum of Science, Boston, opens a window into that possibility in its temporary exhibit “Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age.” This is a traveling exhibit from The Field Museum, Chicago, and is available through Jan. 13.

One of its features is a replica of Lyuba, the best-preserved baby mammoth discovered to-date, found by a family of Nenet reindeer herders in Siberia. Although about 42,000 years old, she was so well preserved when they found her that they believed she was a dead reindeer until they examined her closely.

She stands in a display case as though she were walking across the room, and one can walk around and see her entire body. Looking closely, one can actually see tufts of ginger-colored hair on her legs.

Dr. Daniel Fisher, a paleontologist and mammoth tusk expert from the University of Michigan, is one of the original scientists who studied this rare specimen. He took time to describe what it was like to work with Lyuba before leaving for St. Petersburg, Russia, to study Jenya, a newly discovered adolescent mammoth.

“At the time when we first examined her,” he wrote in an email, “she was frozen, and therefore quite hard on the surface, and with no strong smell. …When completely thawed, and when we opened her viscera, her organs were soft and wet inside, somewhat compressed, but otherwise, not so different from those of a fresh carcass. The smell of her internal tissues was not strong, but mildly sour … (which) was one of the things that first alerted me to her unusual manner of preservation.”

While we may not be able to touch Lyuba, the exhibit offers many other tactile opportunities.

Four enormous heads depicting ancient cousins of mammoths line one of the exhibit’s walls. These are artistic representations of what, for example, an ancient Ambelodon or a Phiomia might have looked like, and they hang at various levels according to their height. Signs next to these heads repeatedly encourage visitors to “Please touch!”

One panel offers a section of musk ox hair one can feel — fur that is believed to be close to mammoth fur.

Combining art, video game technology and on-demand videos, the exhibit is highly interactive. One can travel through a simulation of a cave, using a controller as a flashlight to view paintings on its walls and illuminate its corners. If interested in theories regarding mammoth behavior, one has but to push a button to watch a short video on the subject.

Herein lies the power of this exhibit: it does all that it can to bring the Ice Age to us, such that it brings it tantalizing close to life.

Paul Fontaine, vice president of education for the Museum of Science, said, “The best ‘exclamations’ I’ve heard in the gallery have been children amazed at the size of these Ice Age animals. The mammoth, mastodon and short-faced bear models all elicit the same type of awe and wide-eyed stares that are usually reserved for our dinosaurs!”

“Mammoths and Mastodons” ends with more information about today’s endangered elephants. It encourages visitors to learn more about these creatures and the efforts to preserve them.

“In another sense,” wrote Dr. Fisher, “mammoths are also ‘endangered.’ To be sure, they are extinct and now past direct harm from us, but the ivory trade still consumes many tons of mammoth ivory each year, and with it goes untold amounts of information on the biology and environments of mammoths.”

“The single greatest thing we could do for elephants and mammoths,” he concludes, “is to encourage substitutes for ivory.”

For more information on “Mammoths and Mastodons” visit

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