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Waking the Baby Mammoth – a Tale of Science Bringing the Past to Life

Waking the Baby Mammoth

Waking the Baby Mammoth (Yuri to the far right)

"Only a handful have ever been found before. But none like her. Her name is Lyuba. A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously. Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007. She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered. And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe. Everyone wants to know... how did she die? What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate? Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?" - NGC

Waking the Baby Mammoth, a new program by the National Geographic Channel premiering Sunday, April 26th at 9PM, tells the tale of a single accidental discovery of a frozen baby mammoth in the Siberian tundra and how this discovery has enriched our understanding of these extinct magnificent beasts. (My quick review: 5 stars. watch it! it's beautiful and fascinating.)

However, this is not a standard paleontological nature show about mammoths in general or what life was like during the Pleistocene. Nor is this program purely about the science behind this bountiful discovery, though the arduous nature and reality of the scientific process is certainly one of the show's stars. In fact, one of the most fascinating aspects of this program is its focus on the one man and his strange culture (from an American perspective) that led to the discovery of one of the most important findings in mammoth biology. Waking the Baby Mammoth is as much an education on the hardy nature, harsh lifestyle, and animist beliefs of the reindeer herding Nemets nomads of Siberia as it is a show about the mammoth.

Without spilling too many details, the show begins with the incredibly fortuitous discovery of Lyuba, a 40,000 year old mammoth calf, by the nomadic Yuri Khudi (and his sons), a man whose animism dictates that disturbing the remains of the dead will lead to a curse. Too often with such paleontological findings as this, the preserved creature would be dug up and put on the market, leading to irreversible decomposition and the loss of a treasure trove of valuable information. However, Yuri had enough understanding and foresight to contact authorities in Russia, which began the intensive examination and retrieval of Lyuba (including a short drama during which Lyuba disappeared due to thievery). It is implied though not fully explained that Yuri had some inkling of what he had found - in fact he believed that the corpse had been put in his path for a reason, though he dared not disturb it himself.

The program subsequently follows a very well-done modern scientific storyline, detailing the scientific process and hurdles in understanding from whence Lyuba came, how she died, and what she can tell us about her Pleistocene life. That being said, apart from specific experiments involving high tech C-T scans, internal tissue extraction via some remarkable endoscopy, and dental examinations, the program does not delve overly deep into the intricate data. It's impossible to watch the work on Lyuba without feeling the anxiety the researchers must have felt in getting everything done right the first time on so precious a specimen.

From my own scientist perspective, I think the program goes as deep as it needed to portray the scientific importance of Lyuba's discovery. More importantly, the show succeeded best at precisely what it is intended to do: to bring drama and a deep emotional human connection to a quite amazing story. Throughout the program, we are presented with many truly stunning 3D animations of Lyuba and her mother. In cinematic form fitting with the story's message, Lyuba has been brought to life as an active furry baby mammoth tromping along next to researchers as they contemplate the frozen carcass' secrets. The visuals are beautiful, as the light shines off the baby's fur at just the right angles and her shadows dance in just the right way to really make her come alive - like a corporeal ghost watching her own ancient body bring her back to life in our own minds. Some of the more touching scenes involve Yuri himself near the end.  A full year after his initial discovery, he was finally given the chance to suit up in aseptic surgical gear and join the researchers in the lab to witness first hand what his discovery meant to the rest of the world so foreign to him. It's hard to imagine what must have been going through this relatively "simple" man's mind, but his own expressions make it clear that he had come to understand the importance of his discovery and its impact as a blessing - not a curse - on our understanding of life's history. In his final farewell we see him and the animated Lyuba together in a quite touching cinematic juxtaposition of this nomadic reindeer herder and his now eternal connection to baby Lyuba.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is a tale that depicts the contrasting of cultures, worldviews, and personal beliefs of humanity amidst the backdrop of a seminal scientific discovery. Where this program succeeds remarkably well is in making the viewer understand the integral importance of these disparate cultures and the fortuitous convergence of good fortunes that allowed Lyuba to give us a new view of a lifeform long lost to us.

It is in this sense that NatGeo has truly woken the baby mammoth and placed her firmly within our modern human minds and hearts.

Be sure to check it out on the National Geographic Channel on Sunday, April 26th at 9PM. Lyuba will also grace the cover of the May edition of National Geographic Magazine on newstands April 28th.

Christie over at Observations of a Nerd also has a glowing review up now.

Once again I'd like to thank Minjae Ormes (Digital PR Consultant for NatGeo) for 1) the opportunity to review the NGC programs and 2) for being so cool in our communications.

If your interested, also check out my recent review of NatGeo's Kingdom of the Blue Whale.

The National Geographic Press Release



Scientists Embark on a Paleo-Detective Expedition to Reveal the Secrets of this 40,000-Year-Old Phenomenon, as Centuries-Old Indigenous Culture Meets Modern-Day Science

"This baby looks like you could snap your fingers and she would wake up and walk."

Narrated by Award-Winning Actor Victor Garber,
Waking the Baby Mammoth
Premieres Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT

(WASHINGTON, D.C. - APRIL 1, 2009) Only a handful have ever been found before.  But none like her.  Her name is Lyuba.  A 1-month-old baby mammoth, she walked the tundra about 40,000 years ago and then died mysteriously.  Discovered by a reindeer herder, she miraculously re-appeared on a riverbank in northwestern Siberia in 2007.  She is the most perfectly preserved woolly mammoth ever discovered.  And she has mesmerized the scientific world with her arrival - creating headlines across the globe.  Everyone wants to know ... how did she die?  What can she tell us about life during the ice age and the Earth's changing climate?  Will scientists be able to extract her DNA, and what secrets will it uncover?

Now, from behind the headlines, National Geographic Channel's (NGC) Waking the Baby Mammoth sets out around the world on a cutting-edge forensic investigation into Lyuba's life and death, 10,000 years after most populations of her species became extinct.  Narrated by award-winning actor Victor Garber, the two-hour special premiering Sunday, April 26, 2009 at 9 p.m. ET/PT tells Lyuba's incredible story with insight from her indigenous Siberian rescuers and the scientific community so captivated by her, as a centuries-old nomadic tribe meets modern-day science in this fascinating cultural exchange.  The discovery of this baby mammoth gives researchers their best chance yet to build a genetic map of a species that vanished at the end of the last ice age.  Through her DNA, Lyuba could finally explain why the prehistoric giants were driven to extinction, share clues about their migrations, and perhaps shed light on climate change.  Could she even some day help to resurrect mammoths?  With research funded in part by the National Geographic Society, Lyuba's journey will also be the May cover story of National Geographic magazine.

Filmed on three continents, Waking the Baby Mammoth presents a 21st century paleo-detective expedition that takes viewers from the tundra of remote Siberia to cities in Japan, Europe and North America as we join a nomad and leading scientists to "awaken" this startlingly lifelike baby.  We travel back to the ice age with Lyuba via CGI animation and then fast-forward to the present to reveal the latest innovations in woolly mammoth research, including advanced computed tomography (CT) scanning and DNA analysis, searching for clues to her species' life, extinction and scientific future.

Waking the Baby Mammoth first follows paleontologist Dan Fisher and mammoth "hunter" Bernard Buigues back to the spot where Lyuba was discovered in May 2007.  She was found on a snowy riverbank by Yuri Khudi, a nomadic reindeer herder in Russia's remote arctic Yamal-Nenets region.  Named after Yuri's wife, Lyuba was turned over to the scientists at the Salekhard Museum in Siberia, which is where the next chapter in her journey began.

The film next accompanies Lyuba to Japan's Jikei University School of Medicine, where her body undergoes three-dimensional computer mapping that produces detailed images of her internal organs and structure, providing scientists with insight into the possible cause of her death.  With all but her tail and woolly coat of fur, the CT scans showed that the 200-pound baby was in excellent health when she died, with healthy fat tissue and no damage to her skeleton.  The scientists conclude that Lyuba met her end by drowning or falling into deep mud, as there are large amounts of sediment packed into her trunk, mouth and trachea.  They believe that her final muddy resting place became part of the region's permafrost, preventing decay and keeping her remarkably intact, down to her perfect trunk and largely unblemished skin.

Researchers have long debated whether woolly mammoths' extinction was due to climate change or overhunting by humans.  Now they hope to compare her DNA with that of other mammoths from the ice age to trace the migrations of mammoth populations over time and help solve the mystery of her species' disappearance.

Finally we travel with Lyuba to the Zoological Institute in Saint Petersburg, Russia, to follow the scientists as they conduct an autopsy and analyze her tissue, bone and teeth to reveal insight into the structure of mammoth organs and muscles.  Their study is able to confirm Lyuba's age, her diet, the season of her death and environmental conditions for her mammoth herd in Siberia during her short life.  In fact, they are even able to extract pollen that remained in her lungs, which can be used to reconstruct prehistoric plants that grew on the site where Lyuba died.  The bone and tissue samples that are collected will also be used for future DNA analysis and shared among mammoth research teams worldwide, so experts across the globe can learn from her.

For mammoth scientists, discoveries like this truly come once in a lifetime.  As Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Science says, "Lyuba is a creature straight out of a fairy tale.  When you look at her, it's hard to understand how she could have stayed in such good condition for 40,000 years ... This is the most amazing discovery since we've been studying mammoths."

For more information on the best-preserved baby mammoth ever discovered, visit beginning in early April 2009.

Waking the Baby Mammoth is produced by Woollyworks, Inc.  Producer is Adrienne Ciuffo and director is Pierre Stine. Special thanks to The International Mammoth Committee.  For National Geographic Channel, executive producer is Chris Valentini; senior vice president of special programming is Michael Cascio and executive vice president of content is Steve Burns.

National Geographic Channel

Based at the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C., the National Geographic Channel (NGC) is a joint venture between National Geographic Ventures (NGV) and Fox Cable Networks (FCN).  Since launching in January 2001, NGC initially earned some of the fastest distribution growth in the history of cable and more recently the fastest ratings growth in television.  The network celebrated its fifth anniversary January 2006 with the launch of NGC HD which provides the spectacular imagery that National Geographic is known for in stunning high-definition.  NGC has carriage with all of the nation's major cable and satellite television providers, making it currently available to nearly 70 million homes.  For more information, please visit


Russell Howard, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6652,

Chris Albert, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6526,

National Broadcast: Dara Klatt, 202-912-6720,

National & Local Radio: Johanna Ramos Boyer, 703-646-5137,

National Print: Christie Parell, The Fratelli Group, 202-822-9491,

Local Print: Licet Ariza, The Fratelli Group, 202-496-2126,

Digital: Minjae Ormes, Independent Digital Consultant, 917-539-7646,

Photos: Christine Elasigue, National Geographic Channel, 202-912-6708,