Have a fun, fossil-filled Spring Break at HMNS! Did we mention we have air conditioning?

Looking for something to do with your little paleontologist over spring break? Well, we have some dino-mite options for you!

First, check out this Photo Scavenger Hunt of the Morian Hall of Paleontology. All of the images on the hunt are of specimens or images you can easily see in the hall. The trick?  We have zoomed in on the objects so closely that you might not be able to tell where to look! This is perfect for those paleontologists that haven’t quite learned to read yet.

Next, try taking a tour of the Paleo Hall with some of our knowledgeable staff! Our tours are family-friendly and available in a variety of ways. Talk to the Box Office to find out how you can participate!

Then, check out the bucking new Broncosaurus ride in the grand hall! Built especially for the little ones, this ride takes you back to the Cretaceous and lets you see what it would be like to saddle up a T. rex and go for a ride.

Check out our new buckin' Broncosaurus ride!

Finally, take a trip back in time to the age of saber-toothed cats, giant sloths and woolly mammoths in the Giant Screen Theatre when you watch Titans of the Ice Age.  You’ll explore the mammoth steppe with baby Lyuba, a 40,000-year-old female woolly mammoth calf recently exposed by the melting Siberian permafrost. You’ll discover the story of Zed, one of the most complete Colombian Mammoth skeletons ever uncovered.

All in all, we have a fun, fossil-filled week awaiting you! See you soon!

Woolly mammoths to walk the earth again?

Thats right. Those giant, tusked behemoths could one day soon walk among us again. Maybe I should start at the beginning.

st petersburg 2008 - 218.JPG
© Photo credit: Florent Herry

In 2007, a reindeer breeder in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia named Yuri Khudi discovered a one month old baby woolly mammoth. The baby mammoth, dubbed Lyuba, is roughly 40,000 years old and almost perfectly preserved (missing only her fur and toenails.) Lyuba either suffocated by sinking in mud or drowned in a muddy river.

Large amounts of mud were found in her mouth, trunk and trachea, suggesting that she asphyxiated. This sealed out oxygen and microbes that normally break down soft tissue and helped keep Lyuba perserved. Her body then dehydrated and shrunk to about half of her normal size. Lyuba now stands about waist high on the average person. The permafrost of Siberia then covered her and kept her in pristine condition until she was uncovered 40,000 years later.

Interested? So was National Geographic. They created a documentary about Lyula, the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered. Waking the Baby Mammoth premieres this Sunday, April 26, at 8 p.m. Central time, and follows Yuri’s amazing find and the fascinating process of discovery as scientists work to unravel Lyula’s mysteries.  (Check out the video preview below)They investigate the body of the mammoth, learning how she briefly lived and theorizing how she died. The documentary includes CGI graphics that help show how Lyuba and her family might have looked as they survived the harsh conditions of Siberia during the ice age.

Some other things you might not know about wooly mammoths:

The word “mammoth” is thought to have originated from an old Vogul word for “earth.”

Woolly Mammoths began dying out about 10,000 years ago, around the end of the ice age. A small population of dwarfed mammoths survived in Alaska until roughly 3,700 years ago; however, the majority died out long before then.

The first largely intact frozen mammoth carcass was discovered in 1799 in Siberia.

One of the longest mammoth tusks ever found was 16 feet long and weighed more than 200 pounds.

asian-elephant
 © Photo credit:
robertpaulyoung

Mammoths are very closely related to the Asian Elephant (they share 99.4 percent of their DNA.) It is possible to take the sperm from a mammoth and impregnant the egg of an elephant, and use a female elephant to incubate. This would give birth to a mammoth/elephant hybrid.

From there, it would be possible to impregnate the hybrid to create an offspring that was even more closely related to the ancient mammoths. In a similar process, you could also take a woolly mammoth egg and clone it to create  a woolly mammoth.

The woolly mammoth genome was the first genome to be reconstructed from an extinct animal It has 4.7 billion base pairs and is the largest known mammal genome.

Poaching and the extinction of the African Elephant

Todays guest blogger is John Frederick Walker, a conservationist and author. In his new book, Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold History and the Fate of Elephants, which is set to hit shelves this month, Walker tells the story of the ivory trade and its dramatic effect on the population of African Elephants. He’ll be at HMNS on Tuesday, Jan. 20 to give a lecture of the same title.

The Writing of Ivory’s Ghosts:  The White Gold of History and the Fate of Elephants

As I prepare for a national lecture tour based on my forthcoming book, Ivory’s Ghosts, I know there’ll be one question I’ll get everywhere I go, including the HMNS on January 20:  “why did you decide to write this book?” 

Big 5 - Elephant
Creative Commons License photo credit: TheLizardQueen

In my case, the germ of the idea began with the realization that despite the nearly twenty-year-old ban on international trade in ivory, elephants are still being poached for their tusks.  As a journalist and a conservationist, that bothered me.  I began to wonder about the connection between the demand for ivory in history and its impact on the animal that has always been its greatest source.   Was there something about this troubling, long-standing link that would throw light on the problems of elephant conservation in the 21st century?

Five years ago, I started researching Ivory’s Ghosts in museums and archives in the US and Europe, and then traveled to Africa to investigate elephant issues first hand, interviewing experts from South Africa to Kenya.  I learned that ivory has been valued since the Ice Age, when humans carved figurines from the tusks of the woolly mammoth, the ancestor of the modern elephant—35,000 years ago!  Even then humans were attracted to ivory’s beauty and scarcity, and its ability to be finely carved.

Allegory of Vanity
Creative Commons License photo credit: unforth

Throughout history, nearly every culture, from ancient Egypt to the US, used it to make small sculptures, furniture, combs, chessmen, and hundreds of other objects, a list that later included pistol grips, piano keys and billiard balls.  By the late 1800s, ivory was the plastic of its age. Demand helped drive the slaughter of elephants, whose tusks were brought to the African coasts on the shoulders of slaves.  By the 1980s, organized poaching, often carried out with AK-47s, halved the African elephant population, causing world-wide outrage that led to an international agreement (under CITES, the convention on trade in endangered species) banning cross-border trade in ivory.

But the ivory ban has failed to stop poaching.  In Ivory’s Ghosts, I look into the reasons behind that.  One is that the long-standing demand for ivory is not likely to disappear, at least anytime soon.  The attraction to ivory is simply too ingrained in too many cultures.  And poaching, not surprisingly, flourishes in countries that lack adequate enforcement, or are torn apart by war, like the Democratic Republic of Congo.  In the absence of a legal market to meet age-old demand, the black market for ivory is flourishing.

Now some conservationists are starting to think what was previously unthinkable:  returning to a highly controlled ivory trade, one that’s structured to help, not hurt elephants.  After all, as long as there are elephants, there will be ivory. 

Today, tusks are routinely recovered from elephants that die of natural causes, and stockpiled in the warehouses of wildlife departments and park services in dozens of African countries. What should be done with all this valuable “white gold?”  Cash-strapped African nations are not about to destroy it.  Instead, they have twice successfully petitioned CITES to be allowed to sell their legitimate ivory caches to raise funds strictly for elephant conservation.  The last time was this past October, when Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and South Africa sold over 100 tons of tusks, raising $15 million from CITES-approved buyers (Japan and China), who agreed not to re-export any ivory products. 

Aren't Ele's just wonderful creatures?
Creative Commons License photo credit: BrianScott

The reason these countries gained approval for this sale was that they have well-managed elephant populations, and control poaching.  In fact, Botswana and South Africa actually have too many elephants for the habitat available to them.  Officials in South Africa’s Kruger National Park may even have to resort to culling some of their elephants if they can’t find other ways to keep their fast-growing herds within bounds. 

It’s a situation that strikes many elephant lovers as contradictory—it gave me pause at first—but regular, highly controlled, CITES-administered sales might provide a means to support successful elephant conservation, strange as that sounds.

I look forward to sharing what I’ve learned about the fascinating, complex, and often troubling subject of ivory and elephants with the HMNS audience, and hearing their thoughts on the future of elephants.

For more background on my books, please visit www.johnfrederickwalker.com.

Learn more about Ivory’s Ghosts: The White Gold History and the Fate of Elephants as John Frederick Walker comes to the HMNS to discuss his new book on the evening of January 20 at 6:30 PM. Or learn more about our other lectures here.