Plans to defrost woolly mammoth are put on ice

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The Independent Online
AN ICE cube weighing 24 tons and containing one very frozen woolly mammoth is to be put into cold store over the winter, before attempts are made next spring to defrost it.

The prehistoric behemoth, encased in its frozen coffin, was cut out of the permafrost in the Taimyr Peninsula of Siberia and airlifted to the city of Khatanga, 200 miles away. It is to be placed in an ice cellar within the next few days. Scientists said it would be April before they begin thawing out the mammoth - with a set of 15 hair dryers attached to a frame around the ice block.

It will be the first time that scientists will be able to control the defrosting process of a frozen mammoth in the laboratory environment of an ice cellar. They hope it will reveal information on how the beast lived and died.

Dick Mol, a mammoth specialist at the Natural History Museum in Rotterdam, said: "Up to now all frozen mammoth remains were excavated in summer at the site they were found. They were thawed out with hoses which meant we lost of lot of information from the surrounding ice as well as destroying soft tissue."

Scientists estimate that the mammoth is 23,000 years old. Its teeth - examined because the skull was exposed - suggest it would have been 47 years old, if its eating habits were similar to those of an African elephant. Standing 11ft tall and with the spiralling tusks typical of a male animal, it would have weighed between six and eight tons.

Mr Mol said that thawing out part of the ice has already revealed that the mammoth appears to be perfectly preserved as a result of being frozen soon after it died. Scientists have recovered three types of hair from the animal: the 4ft-long outer hair, the shorter, inner layers and the very fine, thick fur next to the skin.

Suggestions that it will be possible to clone the beast by extracting tissue and transferring a cell nucleus to the unfertilised egg of an elephant have been dismissed as highly unlikely. Mr Mol said: "DNA needs to be preserved at temperatures lower than -30C and this mammoth has been at temperatures higher than 12C."

Nevertheless, when thawing begins next year, the scientists expect to discover new details about the ecology and lifestyle of mammoths from biological material - such as pollen grains and grasses - frozen alongside the animal.