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Meet Yuka, Siberia’s latest star with strawberry blonde hair, discovered in the ice by tusk hunters

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07 April 2012


A Siberian baby mammoth, born thousands of years ago has caused a sensation in the West after being the ‘star’ of BBC and Discovery Channel TV project.

The exceptionally preserved creature nicknamed Yuka was found recently in an ice cliff in the Ust-Yansky region of Yakutia by tusk hunters and handed over to scientists.

Intriguingly, experts say the wounds on its carcass suggest it was attacked by a predator, probably the extinct Eurasian cave lion.

Yuka, the strawberry haired mammoth, could have been killed by a lion, paleontologists suggest. Picture: Gennady Boeskorov

More than this, they conclude in 'Woolly Mammoth: Secrets From The Ice', that there is evidence early Siberians were 'using the lions to catch mammoths and then moving the lions off their kill'.

As well as signs that Yuka — probably aged three or four — had been killed by a lion, Professor Daniel Fisher, curator and director of the University of Michigan's Museum of Paleontology, said there was 'a bizarre set of damage on the hide' and missing rib bones.

The damage included 15cm-30cm scalloped cuts which he theorises 'could be the sawlike motion of a human tool'.

Apart from the ribs, other bones had been removed, including the spine and pelvis while the skull was found nearby. A tusk was missing.

'There is dramatic evidence of a life-and-death struggle between Yuka and some top predator, probably a lion,» said Professor Fisher, a mammoth expert.

'Even more interesting, there are hints that humans may have taken over the kill at an early stage. Were humans using the lions to catch mammoths and then moving the lions off their kill?'

Analysis of the remains found that the mammoth — around two metres long — had not long before its death suffered a broken hind leg perhaps in an epic struggle for survival.

The baby mammoth was named Yuka after tusk hunters from Yukagir community in Yakuria. Picture: Yugakir community

Scientists say mammoths evolved from African elephants when the Ice Age gripped the planet two million years ago.

They are believed to have been around twice the size of today's elephants, and their long tusks helped them fight predators and pick grass and shrubs out of the ice.
The film as shown in the UK was presented by Professor Alice Roberts who said the discovery was like a 'time machine' enabling us to understand the past.

'It just doesn't look like an animal which died 10,000 years ago. It looks so fresh, almost alive. It's an historic moment,' she told viewers.

Professor Adrian Lister of the Natural History Museum in London said: 'This looks like one of the most complete mammoth carcasses we've ever found. To find a complete carcass with all its flesh and skin and hair like this, it can only happen in the very far north of Siberia.'

The theory of using lions to wear down prey before humans move in to claim the meat has a parallel in Africa. Even today, a tribe in Kenya called the Dorobo steals prey from lions, say experts.

The Fisher theory is that humans probably buried Yuka's remains in the permafrost — the modern-day equivalent of storing food in the deep freeze.

‘What remains now would then be 'leftovers' that were never retrieved’, he told Discovery Channel. Until now, when strawberry blonde Yuka has emerged as a worldwide star.

The documentary is the latest evidence of a keen new worldwide interest in the awesome mammoth.

Another sign is the race to clone the creature from samples found in the permafrost, of which Yuka appears a striking example, yet far from the only one. Estimates vary, but some experts say we are only five years away from elephants acting as surrogates to the re-birth of Yuka's cousins who will again roam the snowy wastes of  Siberia.

To many it is an exciting and tantalising prospect. To others it is a real-life Jurassic Park, going a step too far in interfering with nature.

For now it is Yuka’s moment of glory — some 10,000 years after being buried in the permafrost.

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