Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. Author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), and more recently Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), and Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), his many fans have been badgering him to join the blogosphere for years. The CFZ Blog Network is proud to have finally persuaded him to do so.

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Monday, 7 February 2011

WHEN THE MAMMOTHS CAME TO TOWN

A mammoth discovery in Shropshire! (Dr Karl Shuker)


[I wrote the original version of this article - one of my earliest publications - in March 1987, and it appeared later that year in a now long-defunct British monthly magazine called The Unknown. In order to maintain its then-current, now-historical flavour, I am republishing it here in largely unchanged form (except where newer information and discoveries have required some minor updating of material). I wish to thank the Shropshire Star newspaper most sincerely for very kindly supplying me with a photograph of some of the mammoths’ remains for inclusion in this article.]


When (if?) the good weather returns, I plan to visit the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre at Craven Arms, near Ludlow, ensconced in some of England’s most beautiful countryside, in order to see the life-sized replica of a certain, very special Ice Age mammal – and, in so doing, revisit an extraordinary discovery that I first documented way back in 1987. Allow me to explain.

One of the most remarkable yet unexpected palaeontological finds of modern times in England took place in the county of Shropshire, and involved a discovery of truly mammoth proportions.

The Shropshire saga began inauspiciously at the end of September 1986 during a session of excavations by contractors working in an ARC Western-owned sand and gravel quarry at Condover, a small village just north of Shrewsbury. Quarryman Maurice Baddeley was using a dragline to scoop up clay and peat sediment from the quarry’s upper surface in order to reach the gravel underneath, piling the removed sediment into a towering pinnacle for subsequent levelling. During this activity, his dragline’s bucket drew up from a muddy pond a long, stiff object that Mr Baddeley initially dismissed as a metal or wooden post, probably a telegraph pole, and tipped onto the sediment pile. Upon later, closer observation, however, just prior to the pile being demolished, he realised that this ‘pole’ was actually a gigantic bone – measuring 4-5 ft long!

At this same time, Eve and Glyn Roberts of nearby Bayston Hill were walking their dogs here and saw the bone. Realising that it might be something important, Eve lost no time in telephoning the Shropshire Museums Service, and relayed what they had seen to the County Museums Officer, Geoff McCabe, who promptly sent out a team to investigate. To their great surprise and delight, the team discovered that the intriguing object was nothing less than a limb bone from a woolly mammoth Mammuthus primigenius – that hairy elephantine epitome of the Ice Ages.

Naturally the scientists immediately combined forces with the contractors to monitor future digging in the hope of disinterring further remains - with deserved success. For during the next week, 18 more specimens were obtained, including various vertebrae and a jawbone bearing two enormous teeth.

Fossil remains, even when as massive as those of mammoths, are unexpectedly fragile when unearthed. Hence to ensure their continued survival, the precious Shropshire specimens were swiftly transferred to nearby Ludlow Museum, where they could not only be more precisely identified and age-determined but also be carefully cleaned of debris, shielded from harmful sunlight, and allowed to dry very slowly to prevent distortion.

Meanwhile, the regular media reports concerning the mammoth's discovery, as featured in the Shropshire Star in particular, had incited very considerable public interest - resulting in the brief unveiling of these remains for a press conference and photo-session held at the local Acton Scott Farm Museum on 7 October.


FORMAL SCIENTIFIC EXCAVATION
 Among the scientific representatives present at the conference was Dr Russell Coope - Reader in Palaeontological Sciences at the University of Birmingham. On the morning of 9 October (and subsequently working in conjunction with mammoth expert Dr Adrian Lister of the University of Cambridge), Dr Coope led the first formal scientific excavation at the quarry seeking more mammoth remains. Moreover, news of this most significant search had already travelled beyond Shropshire, because the BBC’s long-running children's television show ‘Blue Peter’ was represented on site by presenter Mark Curry and an attendant film crew, recording the excavation for inclusion within a future episode (which was screened on 30 October).

The four-day dig (financed by ARC and the Shropshire County Council) brought together a team of scientists from the University of Birmingham and the Shropshire Museums Service plus numerous enthusiastic local volunteers. Their principal focus of attention was the 20-ft-high sediment pile already hewn out of the quarry by the draglines, because it was this sediment that had originally contained the mammoth's skeleton - and from which, therefore, the team hoped to disinter and disentangle it, piece by piece.


AN OVERWHELMING SUCCESS
By the end of Day 1, even the most optimistic expectations had been exceeded, because a tally of more than 50 specimens - ranging from tiny wafers of tusk fragments to entire limb bones - had been unearthed! These were lightened by removing loose debris, and each specimen was then delicately packed separately within an opaque, fully-labelled bag for direct transportation to Ludlow Museum for identification and preservation. Deer and insect remains, as well as pollen samples, were also collected.



Remains from the Shropshire mammoths (courtesy of the Shropshire Star)


The search ended on 13 October, and proved to have been an overwhelming success, because with more than 200 separate bags of fossilised remains, it seemed certain that almost the entire mammoth skeleton had been obtained. Pride of place within the collection, however, was surely the pelvic girdle, because part of it was obtained intact as a single, massive, and substantially heavy portion bearing one complete acetabulum (the socket for femur articulation) and obturator foramen (a large gap between the pubis and ischium bones on each side of the pelvic girdle in mammals). Nevertheless, there was even more exciting news to be disclosed.


NOT ONE, BUT FIVE!
Put quite simply, scientific examination of the collection obtained at that point (as well as during three subsequent excavations, the last one spanning 15 June to 3 July 1987) ultimately revealed the presence of not one but five mammoths! One was an adult (originally thought to be a female, but confirmed by Russian scientist Vac Garutt at the Leningrad Museum of Science in 1988 to be a male), believed to have been 30-32 years old when it died. The other four were juveniles. Three were each represented by a largely complete lower jaw and various other remains. Two of these latter three juveniles were 3-4 years old, and appeared to be of opposite sexes. The third was larger, and was aged 5-6 years old. One of the 3-4-year-olds was found during the first dig, as was the 5-6-year-old, whereas the other 3-4-year-old came to light during the summer 1987 dig, as did the fourth juvenile, thought to be 4-5 years old and represented by a single rib.

Prior to continued scrutiny, however, it was imperative that their fossilised remains be cleaned thoroughly to remove as much tenacious debris as possible. So to ensure effective washing, an outdooor area normally reserved for the cleaning of public transport vehicles was utilised! Not surprisingly, on 1 November this singular event attracted a large crowd of spectators.

The scientific team estimated that approximately 80 per cent of the total skeletal content of the mammoths had been obtained during the recent excavation. Nevertheless, one major item was stil1 missing - the adult mammoth's skull. Undaunted, the team decided to instigate a second search, and once again, following a public appeal for local volunteers, a sizeable party was assembled, wielding a formidable armoury of shovels and spades. Yet sadly, despite a most valiant and determined effort sustained throughout the weekend of 15-16 November, the skull was not located, although several additional minor bones were unearthed. A third excavation took place not long afterwards, with a fourth, final dig taking place the following summer, but the skull was never found. As suggested by Geoffrey McCabe, it may have been removed soon after the adult’s death by human contemporaries.


FUTURE DESTINATION
Even without the skull, however, the Shropshire specimens still constituted one of the most comprehensive collections of mammoth skeletons ever discovered. Indeed, the County Museums Service hoped to retain them to form the centre-piece of an extensive educational exhibition, depicting the appearance of Shropshire during the Ice Ages when inhabited by mammoths. In turn, this would also greatly benefit local tourism. Conversely, in view of their national scientific significance, it was equally possible that they may be taken for permanent display in London. Thus in December 1986, a local conference was held to discuss the mammoths' future destination, attended by Shropshire Council members, ARC representatives, and Drs Coope and Lister.

To the Shropshire community’s delight, it was decided that the collection should be retained locally, for the planned Ice Age exhibition. Furthermore, ARC gave permission for future digging in 1987 in pursuit of any further remains (including the adult mammoth’s elusive skull), and pledged financial participation in subsequent scientific studies upon the bones already obtained. Moreover, in March 1987 the entire collection was transported to the University of Birmingham for research purposes.




The Shropshire mammoths' scientific debut - via a formal paper written by Coope and Lister and published in the scientific journal Nature on 3 December 1987 - was certainly one of the most thrilling episodes in British palaeontology for very many years, supplemented by continuing detailed studies. Even so, although certainly not the types of fossil to be found every day of the week, mammoth remains have been uncovered in the UK before - so why were the Shropshire mammoths of especial importance? This can be readily answered as follows.


PHENOMENAL COLLECTION
 British remains of mammoths and other fossil elephants almost invariably consist of a few bones, teeth, or fragments. Furthermore, a large proportion of these originate from the London region, although a notable find took place in Nottinghamshire during summer 1986, when two huge proboscidean (probably mammoth) limb bones were hauled up by an excavator during the construction of a car-park at Worksop's Bassetlaw Hospital. Consequently, the discovery together of a largely complete adult mammoth skeleton and no less than four partially complete juveniles is truly phenomenal.

Indeed, possibly the only British find in any way comparable to this within modern times was the unearthing in the early 1960s during excavations at an Aveley quarry in Essex of a virtually entire mammoth skeleton. Beneath this was a similarly near-complete skeleton of a straight-tusked elephant Palaeoloxodon antiquus, which by sheer coincidence had died on the very same spot (but undoubtedly several millennia before the mammoth - for the two species were not contemporaries). Needless to say, this unexpected but very remarkable find quickly brought a team from the British Museum (Natural History) to the site to remove the collection for preservation and study.


YOUNGEST BRITISH MAMMOTHS
During the last Ice Age (Weichsel/Würm glaciation), spanning the period 80,000-10,000 years BP (Before Present Day) when M. primigenius still roamed Britain, Shropshire was a birch-dominated tundra interspersed with sparse vegetation and clay-walled marsh-like pools created by melting subterranean ice left stranded by retreating glaciers. Dr Coope opined that the Shropshire mammoths may have wandered into one such pool while seeking vegetation. Although all elephants can swim, they cannot climb steep inclines such as the pool's walls. Consequently, the mammoths would have perished - a tragic end for such majestic creatures.

Coope explained that their remains were discovered between an upper layer of peat (shown to have been deposited 10,000 years ago) and a lower layer of glacial gravel (deposited 18,000 years ago) - another clue to the Shropshire mammoths' especial importance. More precise analysis of the bones themselves, via carbon-dating techniques, yielded an age of approximately 12,800 years BP. Hence, as Coope announced to the media, the Shropshire mammoths were not only the most complete but also, by around 5000 years, the youngest mammoths so far discovered in Britain and had survived beyond the coldest stage of the last Ice Age. In June 2009, Lister revealed that a new, even more accurate method of radiocarbon dating applied to the remains by researchers from the British Museum (Natural History) had yielded a date of 14,000 BP, but this still meant that they were Britain’s youngest mammoths.

In addition, it was suggested that they might even participate at some future stage in one of the most remarkable fields of mammoth-related zoological research currently in progress - the cloning of mammoth DNA. The raw materials (muscles, soft tissues) for this revolutionary work are normally obtained from ice-entombed specimens obtained in Siberia. However, Prof. Alan Wilson of the University of California suggested that the Shropshire specimens may be sufficiently well-preserved to possess samples of soft tissue capable of being used for DNA cloning purposes, and he duly made contact with the Shropshire team to discover more concerning this exciting possibility. In short, the mammoths of Shrewsbury certainly appear set to occupy a prominent position within future scientific research for some considerable time to come.

During 1988, I visited the temporary but exciting exhibition of the Shropshire mammoth remains (which also included an excellent full-sized replica of a woolly mammoth, created by Roby Braun) that was held at Cosford Aerospace Museum, just outside Wolverhampton, from 1 April to 30 October of that year. The exhibition was subsequently staged in Derbyshire, Lancashire, and Newcastle upon Tyne, before closing in August 1991. The replica mammoth now resides within the Secret Hills exhibition at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms, whereas the Shropshire mammoth bones are ensconced in Ludlow Museum and Resource Centre, and are recognised to be the third most complete remains of woolly mammoths to have been discovered anywhere in Europe. Not a bad outcome for a ‘telegraph pole’ that had been dug up by chance and then tipped unceremoniously onto a pile of sediment.




Life-sized reconstruction of a woolly mammoth (Dr Karl Shuker)


UPDATE - 21 February 2014

Life-sized replica skeleton of the adult Shropshire woolly mammoth, exhibited at the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre in Craven Arms, near Ludlow, Shropshire (Dr Karl Shuker)

Yes indeed - today I visited the Shropshire Hills Discovery Centre and saw for myself at last the splendid life-sized replica skeleton of the adult Shropshire woolly mammoth. Well worth the wait, as you can see:

Meeting the mammoth (Dr Karl Shuker)





9 comments:

  1. You know, when I first saw this article, I thought it was referring to the LIVING mammoths reported from Siberia, but I suppose you have mentioned this intriguing cryptozoological possibility elsewhere, like your book "In Search of Extinct Animals". At least I think that's the title.

    Anyway, interesting read. Oh, and on mammoth cloning. Did you know that they have recently mapped the woolly mammoth genome?

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  2. It was entitled In Search of Prehistoric Survivors, and was first published in 1995, but I'm currently updating it very appreciably for republication at a later date.

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  3. Interesting. You must have gotten good reviews if you want to republish it. Anyway, how good do you think the chances are of a living mammoth population are?

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  4. Anonymous above, that's a good question. Wish I knew the answer, but heres som info so you can decide for yourself:

    In the 1580s the Stroganoff family sent a band of Cossacks to hunt down a group of bandits in Siberia that had been stealing from their mines there. The leader of the expedition, Yermak Timofeyevitch, reported that beyond the Ural Mountains he met a "large, hairy elephant." The natives told him that the Kingdom of Sibir considered the giant animals a part of its wealth; they were valued as food and called "mountains of meat".

    In 1873 an article appeared in the Zoologist containing an interview with Cheriton Batchmatchnik, a Russian convict who escaped from Siberia and claimed to have encountered living mammoths in a valley of the Aldan mountains.

    Batchmatchnik had been convicted of smuggling and had been to the mines of Nartchinsk, Siberia. He escaped and travelled southwards, heading for the Amur river in the hope of reaching China. He ran into a band of Cossacks so he turned north and got to the gorges of the Aldan mountains when winter arrived. Following herds of migrating animals, he hoped to find shelter. Instead he claimed he found a hidden valley, hemmed in by cliffs on all sides and he descended to find the valley to be warm and fertile. There was a lake so he made camp beside it and lit a fire. When night fell some huge animals approached, attracted by the fire. Frightened, Batchmatchnik fired his pistol into the dark, causing a stampede. Come daylight he discovered large tracks and a well worn track leading to the water. He looked for somewhere safer to shelter and found a cave. He said when he entered the cave there was a full grown mammoth already in residence. He described the animal as 12 feet (4 metres) tall and 18 feet (6 metres) long. It was covered in reddish wool and black hair. The curving tusks were about 10 feet (3 metres) long.

    In the coming days Batchmatchnik saw about twenty mammoths in the valley. All were adults and he saw no calves. They were peaceable animals who were never aggressive to him and indeed took little notice of him.

    Batchmatchnik eventually left the valley and found his way back it civilisation, and on his return the Russian officials seemed to believe his story as they pardoned Batchmatchnik due to his 'services to science.'

    TO BE CONTINUED IN NEXT POST

    Modified from Thursday, May 20, 2010
    LINDSAY SELBY: Tales of Living Mammoths
    http://forteanzoology.blogspot.com/2010/05/lindsay-selby-tales-of-living-mammoths.html

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  5. A Russian hunter named M. L. Gallon claimed to have seen a pair of mammoths in 1918. This account is in his own words:

    "In the second year I was exploring the taiga, I was very much struck to notice the tracks of a huge animal, I say huge tracks, for they were a long way larger than any of those I had often seen of animals I knew well. It wasn't freezing yet, the snow had melted, and there were thick layers of mud in the clearings. It was in one of these big clearings that I was staggered to see huge footprints pressed deep into the mud. There were four tracks, the tracks of four feet, the first two about 4 m from the second pair, which were a little bigger in size. Then the tracks suddenly turned east and went into the forest of middling-sized elms.

    I followed the track for days and days. Sometimes I could see were the animal had stopped at some grassy clearing and then gone on forever eastwards. Then, one day I saw another track, almost exactly the same. It came from the north and crossed the first one. It looked to me as if they had trampled about all over the place for several hundred m as if they had been excited or upset by their meeting. Then the two animals set out marching eastward one following some 20 m behind the other, both tracks mingling and plowing up the earth together. I followed them for days and days thinking that perhaps I should never see them, and also a bit afraid, for indeed I didn't feel I was big enough to face such beasts alone. One afternoon it was clear enough from the tracks that the animals weren't far off. The wind was in my face, which was good for approaching them without them knowing I was there. All of a sudden I saw one of the animals quite clearly, and now I must admit I really was afraid. It had stopped among some young saplings. It was a huge elephant with big white tusks, very curved; it was a dark chestnut colour as far as I could see.. It had fairly long hair on the hindquarters but it seemed much shorter on the front. I must say I had no idea that there were such big elephants. It had huge legs and moved very slowly. I've only seen elephants in pictures, but I must say that even from this distance I could never have believed any beast could be so big. The second beast was around, I saw it only a few times among the trees: it seemed to be the same size.

    An extraordinary account, doubtless!

    But it isn't just mammoths-it might be mastodons too! "The Portland Press publishes a long conversation with Col. C.F. Fowler, late of the Alaskan Fur and Commercial company, in which he gives very clear evidence that in the interior of Alaska many mastodons still survive. He first discovered among some "fossil" ivory collected by the natives two tusks which showed evidence of being recently taken from the animal which carried them. On questioning the native who sold it to him he was surprised to receive a full description of the immense beast which had been killed by the natives, a description fully identifying the animal with the mastodon. Col. Fowler quotes Gov. Swineford, of Alaska, as having also investigated this matter and as being satisfied that on the high plateaus of that country large herds of mastodons still roam unmolested by the natives, who fear them greatly. The Alaska News also admits that the evidence of their existence is too strong to be denied."

    I hope this data is useful!

    Modified from Thursday, May 20, 2010
    LINDSAY SELBY: Tales of Living Mammoths
    http://forteanzoology.blogspot.com/2010/05/lindsay-selby-tales-of-living-mammoths.html

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  6. Whoah! That is a long list! I wonder if there ARE living mammoths!

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  7. I have loved the "living mammoth" idea ever since reading Hamish X and the Cheese Pirates (the characters ride a mammoth to Snow Monkey Island after the gondola runs out of fuel). I hope that there are mammoths! I don't personally love the idea of cloning one, due to all the ethics and stuff. Elephants are extremely intelligent creatures, and so were mammoths. It brings about the same questions as cloning people, dolphins and chimps. So if we want to see a mammoth, it would be best if the mammoth survived on it's own. Of course, there is also the idea of thawing a frozen one out of the ice, but I somehow doubt that is feasible...

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  8. Nice post.

    Could you include something on mammoths in "Still In Search of Prehistoric Survivors?" Many fans would appreciate it.

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  9. Wonderful blog & good post.Its really helpful for me, awaiting for more new post. Keep Blogging!






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