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'Kolchak was 'like an Englishman'-the analogy oddly recurs in an official Soviet account of the execution'
Peter Fleming, 'The Fate of Admiral Kolchak'

39,000 year old brain starts to give up its secrets

By Anna Liesowska
08 November 2013

Scientists get inside a woolly mammoth's head to understand behaviour of the extinct species.

Crucially 'scientists have identified the main functional areas of the brain, making it possible to talk about creating a brain atlas'.  Picture: Sakha Republic Academy of Science 

The superbly-preserved remains of Yuka were found in 2009 in the Siberian permafrost, but only recently have specialists begun to analyse her brain in a unique study. 

Scientists disclosed that the remains are in such good conditions that a full-scale brain mapping exercise is underway which is expected to significantly boost our understanding of the woolly mammoth, a creature which scientists are separately planning to bring back to life using modern technology.

Our remarkable pictures show the historic moment the brain was removed from Yuka's remains before the analysis began. The initial findings were presented at the 73rd Symposium of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in Los Angeles. 

39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy


39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy


39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy

The first in the world wolly mammoth's brain autopsy. Pictures: Sakha Republic Academy of Science 

These revealed the breakthrough that came when the first CT scan of the cranium was performed at the Republic of Sakha Academy of Sciences, Yakutsk in May 2012 to understand the morphology of Yuka's molars.

'It unexpectedly revealed the preserved brain with well-defined major gross anatomy features, including frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes with gyri, and cerebellum with internal structures, which yielded the first chance to examine woolly mammoth brain morphology,' said the Yakutsk team. 'The brain extraction was performed based on our own experience combined with the generally used treatment for large mammals, including modern elephants. 

'In February 2013, the brain was preserved by the method of flowing fixation developed by Professor Sergei Saveliev (Research Institute of Human Morphology, Russian Academy of Medical Sciences (RIHM, RAMS) in Moscow), which included three weeks of continuous preservation of the braincase content only using formalin.'

'The skull trepanation was performed on 25 February in Yakutsk' - and is shown in our pictures. 

'After the extraction, the brain was wrapped with fabric for support and placed into formalin solution overnight before being flown to Moscow. It is currently stored in formalin solution at the Research Institute of Human Morphology'.

39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy

Scientists disclosed that the remains are in such good conditions that a full-scale brain mapping exercise is underway which is expected to significantly boost our understanding of the woolly mammoth. Picture: Michael Potapov, Sakha Republic Academy of Science 

Initial results of research confirm 'similar morphology to the brain of modern elephants', but much deeper study is needed, they say. The brain was dehydrated because of the mummification process, there was some shrinkage. Oxidation processes in the brain stained it brown.

Crucially 'scientists have identified the main functional areas of the brain, making it possible to talk about creating a brain atlas,' said a report by Professor Albert Protopopov and colleagues. This will proceed in Moscow, he said, at the Institute of Human Morphology under the guidance of Professor Saveliev. 

'This discovery holds great scientific significance. This is the first time scientists have got their hands on the brain of an animal that lived tens of thousands of years ago, and one that is in such good condition,' said Professor Protopopov. The woolly mammoth brain research will help academics 'to understand particular aspects of their behaviour'.

39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy


39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy


39,000 year old mammoth brain autopsy

Wolly mammoth's brain autopsy. Pictures: Michael Potapov, Sakha Republic Academy of Science 

Other mammoth discoveries did not have intact brains due to 'dehydration or rotting. Many skulls were found damaged'. Yuka was around ten years old when she died. The mammoth's brain was not the largest among land animals, he said.

'Dinosaurs were still larger,' Protopopov said, as were Colombian mammoths in North America. 'Our woolly mammoths were smaller.'

Another scientist Gennady Boeskorov confirmed to the symposium that Yuka's remains - despite being so life-like - do not contain any living cells.

'Initially, we need a living cell for the scientific process organisation, but unfortunately, the corpse of Yuka does not contain any,' he said. 'Now, scientists from around the world are working to decipher the DNA of a mammoth. If it is successfully completed, the next step will be re-creation of its similarity and implantation of its nucleus into an elephant cell. Theoretically, it is possible, but practically, no one in the world has been able to carry out such an experiment, which will take a lot of time'.

Still, as Yuka's brains are examined to unlock the secrets of time, her carcass is delighting hoards of museum-goers, as she continues a tour of the modern world in a chilled display cabinet. This weekend she goes on show in Taiwan after a highly successful visit to Japan.

Comments (2)

I love the picture of the scientists holding the top of Yuka's braincase. From their eyes, you can see they're all smiling under their masks. Clearly some folks who are having a great day at work. I envy them terribly!

Fantastic work!

Can anyone comment on why the brain was preserved in formalin rather than just kept frozen?
Robin, California
18/10/2014 09:33
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Wow ! Such massive brains and preserved so well after 39,000 years.
We must thank and respect 10 yr old Yuka by doing as much scientific research on her remains in the hope of helping other animals species who are struggling to survive the present .
Let's hope for instance this research may help the Siberian Tigers, the Siberian Minx and others to survive their uncertain futures .
Hmmm It also tells Homo sapiens one very important lesson.----- It doesn't matter how big your brain you'll not survive as a species on this planet for long if we don't use it to adapt to this changing world .Patrick

patrick , Perth Australia
08/11/2013 20:51
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