This story, which is nonfiction, was written during a visit to Russia in September 1993 and accepted by the St. Petersburg Press (now the St. Petersburg Times). I don't know if it ever ran, because I couldn't stick around to see it through. If it did, they owe me twenty dollars.


ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA -- In his low-ceilinged office in the bowels of the Zoological Museum, Dr. Gennady Baryshnikov pulls clumps of strawlike brown mammoth hair from a cardboard box. The catacombs of the museum contain hundreds more specimens not displayed to the public. Bones as thick as tree trunks, skulls almost too heavy to lift, and boxes of teeth and fragments crowd the dusty shelves, while samples of soft tissue like intestines and muscles float in jars of alcohol. These revolting relics of extinct woolly elephants could help scientists unravel the mysteries of climatic change and evolution, explains the grey-bearded Dr. Baryshnikov, who heads the mammoth research team at the Zoological Institute attached to the museum. Some of the samples contain shreds of DNA that might be replicated and recombined through genetic engineering, eventually producing a living mammoth. "We hope that one day in the future the American movie Jurassic Park can become a reality," Baryshnikov says. Pleistocene Park, perhaps. While scientists in the American movie revived dinosaurs from the Jurassic period, mammoths lived in the later Pleistocene and Holocene periods, overlapping with early man. Some were frozen alive and preserved in landslides in Siberia, with their skin, fur, eyes and meat still clinging to the bones.

Masha's meat was so grey and dry, the dog on the expedition played with it but would not chew it, says Dr. Alexei Tikhonov. 

Ever since the Imperial Academy of Sciences organized the first trip to unearth a mummified mammoth in 1901, the Zoological Institute has been the world headquarters for analysis of mammoth remains. But as methods of analysis have advanced, research funding for Russian scientists has been cut off. Since the 1991 coup, the government has paid only salaries to the team of eight paleontologists at the Institute. "There is no money for microscopes, no money for computers," says Baryshnikov. The last expedition to retrieve a complete mammoth took place in 1988, yielding a slightly rotted baby female named Masha by the scientists. They were able to study Masha's remains only by flying her to Japan and collaborating with Japanese biologists. The team used X-rays and CAT scans to probe Masha's innards, and built a computer simulation of how her heart pumped. They also extracted pieces of DNA from her cells, but could not recover complete chromosomes. To begin to clone a mammoth, a fresher specimen than Masha would be needed, Baryshnikov says. Ideally, the earth around it would be carved out and the entire frozen lump transported to a laboratory. Past specimens like Masha have been removed by flushing them with water, a method that is cheaper but more destructive to the soft tissues.

In order to preserve complete chromosomes, the flesh would have to be so fresh you could eat it, Baryshnikov says. Masha's meat was so grey and dry, the dog on the expedition played with it but would not chew it, says Dr. Alexei Tikhonov, another paleontologist at the Institute. It is unlikely that a whole frozen mammoth will be found by Russian scientists since they have no money to search for one, Baryshnikov says. The last two mummified mammoths were found and reported by nonscientists. A gold miner found baby mammoth Dima in 1977, and a sailor found Masha in 1988. Those were lucky tips; other workers may be reluctant to stop their economic activity when they come across a mammoth, Baryshnikov notes. Japanese scientists searched in Siberia for complete mammoth specimens in 1992 but found nothing. The Japanese team did not inform their Russian colleagues of their search until it was over, says Baryshnikov. Dead mammoths are also sought by ivory hunters who want to strip them of their tusks. Russia has no law protecting mammoth finds, and local governments freely issue permits to ivory hunters, Baryshnikov says. The hunters flood the river bank with water to get at the tusks, often destroying other remains in the process.

Occasionally, the scientists must try to buy specimens. This year, a trader offered the museum an unusual tusk, 108 kg in weight and 3 m in length. The government made a special grant of $15,000 for its purchase. Otherwise, it probably would have been exported and carved up for souvenirs, Baryshnikov explains. The rough, curved tusks, built up by layers over the animal's life, reveal its age and diet. Surveys of thousands of tusks show that the climate of Northern Siberia must once have been as rich as the African savanna, Baryshnikov says. Data from the past could help predict the future climate, he adds. Because climatic change is a global phenomenon, Baryshnikov believes the fate of woolly mammoth research is an international problem. His group has joint research agreements with scientists at Tokyo Jikei University of Medicine and the University of Tokyo, under Dr. Naoki Suzuki, and researchers at the Illinois State Museum under Dr. Larry Agenbroad and Dr. Jeffrey Saunders.

By 1995, Baryshnikov hopes to hold an international symposium on recent mammoth findings, and form an international committee to raise funds for future study. "If living elephants have quite nice laws for their protection, it seems to me mammoths should as well," he says. He proposes setting up a fund to reward nonscientists who report incidental finds instead of destroying them. In another attempt to raise funds, the museum has sent traveling exhibitions of mammoth relics to Japan and to Minneapolis and Houston in the United States. The Japanese display attracted 10,000 visitors a day and paid for some experiments, but the poorly promoted American ventures barely paid their own way. Visitors to the museum at 1 Universetskaya naberezhaya can see three imposing mammoth skeletons, including the 1901 Berezovka mammoth and a pair of 4-m long tusks presented by the czar. Two stuffed baby mammoths, one recognizable as an elephant and the other looking like a charred dog, are also on display. They answer to Masha and Dima, but don't expect to hear them trumpet a reply just yet.-- Diana ben-Aaron