tagged woolly mammoth

The Things I Cannot Control

Much like the rest of us, I’m done with COVID. I want to move on and “get back to normal” – whatever that means. I feel the same way about the climate: I want to get back to my childhood memories of snowy winters and sun-speckled summers with long swathes of green in spring and months of remarkable colors during autumn. Alas, neither of these things is within my control. I watch endless news footage of fires around the world, of mudslides where there used to be frozen ground, of floods that destroy entire islands. Yesterday, more than 4000 people died of COVID – in ONE day that happened. So no wonder my mind has gone to a strange place for escapism that pulls all of this loss of control into a pretty little prehistoric fantasy bow.

Yup, that’s right! No more hair-raising prime-time news hours for me – I have my head in the animal specimens being uncovered by disappearing permafrost and the worlds that existed in those areas before the ice formed tens of thousands of years ago. Dead things that are the result of catastrophic climate change?! I say, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em for the fantastical ride!

In February of last year, a 46,000 year old bird was studied after being found almost completely intact in 2018. This bird was living during the time of the woolly rhino in what used to be a forest, not the current lifeless tundra. Relatively close to that, a 30,000 year old wolf’s head was found – “its mottled fur, brain, tongue, and other features were said to be the best-preserved of any previous specimens” and an 18,000 year old puppy carcass from what’s known as the Pleistocene Epoch (the period between 2,580,000 to 11,700 years ago) were on display following the receding ice.

Reindeer herders, a job I didn’t even know existed before going on this deep dive (giving me a bonus image for Christmas festivities) found the carcass of a cave bear. Ho hum, you say?! This masticator with intact teeth stood more than 7 feet tall and could rip its prey into ribbons before it died over 22,000 years ago and was instantly freeze dried (instantly being a relative term when it comes to prehistory).

You’ll forgive me if I grew up watching “The Land of the Lost” in the late 1970s and a woolly mammoths seemed theoretical. Bones of the actual woolly mammoth were found in northern Siberia that are 10,000 years old. An artic researcher had this to say, “There is a complete head, ribs, various other bones as well as fragments of feet, soft tissues and pelt.” Mind. Blown.

In the Batagayka Crater, in eastern Russia's taiga, a completely intact horse foal was found. “Internal organs, tail, and hooves are whole, and even eyelashes and nostril hairs are clearly visible.” While some trendy shops can’t even make a shirt that lasts a year, this horse brought the goods 40,000 years later!

The ground around the Artic Circle coughed up two cave lion pups who were killed in a landslide, fur and whiskers completely intact - from 25,000 to 50,000 years old. Where you see muddy fur and splayed innards, my mind’s eye sees lush landscapes, noble creatures and…time travel.

I get it, permafrost melting is like taking a confined but toxic sludge and spewing it out into the atmosphere. Along with amazing landscapes to daydream about come ancient bacteria and nasty viruses, not to mention methane and carbon dioxide that further erode our ozone layer and slowly suffocate us. Roads buckle, houses collapse, sinkholes form. If I thought too hard about that and the extraordinary year of badness we’ve had, I’d go running down my street naked and screaming.

Instead, I indulge myself with the 2014 findings at Natural Trap Cave in north-central Wyoming: 85 feet down, this natural refrigerator contained 20 species of mammals and five bird species. including a dire wolf, ancient horse, and mammoth. During the intervening years, Dr. Julie Meacham and her team have been able to assess the anatomy and appearance of species, their diet and the environmental conditions during a time of rapid climate change that can apply to what we’re seeing today. All a win-win, from where I’m sitting!