French Museum: Irradiate That Dead Mammoth, S'il Vous Plait

By Joseph Calamia | June 21, 2010 11:09 am

babymammothYou wash your hands before supper, and you irradiate your mammoths before public display. French customs requires the latter, so researchers plan to hit the world’s oldest baby mammoth with three days worth of gamma rays.

In July 2009, a hunter found the mammoth, now known as Khoma, partially frozen in Siberia. Foxes had used the animal as a giant chew toy, and it was missing bits of its head and trunk. Still, at over 50,000 years old Khoma was a prize: the oldest known mammoth infant.

Here’s hoping those foxes didn’t get sick. Tests have revealed that really old microbes live inside the frozen corpse, and researchers say the mix may include the bacterium anthracis, which can lead to anthrax and black lung disease. Researchers want to irradiate the animal to kill off these microbes before giving the furry babe an autopsy and putting it up for display.

Laurent Cortella, a nuclear physician, told the AFP:

“Our baby, inside its box, will undergo three to four days of a continuous bombardment of 20,000 grays of gamma rays,” he said, grays being the unit that measures absorbed dosage…. “The slightest lethargic little germ from time immemorial hasn’t the least chance of resisting when you realise that one gamma ray of four grays kills a human.”

The lab has used the same technique on other old stuff, including one celebrity corpse: the 1,800-year-old mummy of Ramses II,  who had a nasty fungal infection.

Related content:
80beats: Zed the Mammoth Unearthed From Under an L.A. Department Store
DISCOVER: 69. Frozen Baby Mammoth Unearthed
80beats: The Last Mammoths Made a Round Trip Across the Bering Land Bridge

Image: flickr / PhiveKali

  • Mike Contaldi

    if there is any DNA still present, wont all these gamma rays destroy it?

  • Bernard Buigues

    “That’s the logic of Paris researchers”
    You are wrong, this idea of irradiation don’t come from Paris researchers but it’s an obligation from Customs and Sanitaries Agencies in Russia and in France.
    Try to import a fresh en frozen baby mammoth in the US and you will understand better what kind of questions and problem we faced.

  • Joseph Calamia

    Thanks for reading the blog–and for the correction. I’ve changed the post to reflect this.

  • Laurent Cortella

    For living DNA, at the projected gamma dose of 20 kGy, the information content in DNA is still available. It was confirm by DNA analyses made on irradiated rests of soldiers in order to identify them…
    However, we have no certitude about the behavior in ancient DNA under irradiaiton. Wathever it may be, it must have been very damaged during its “conservation” of 50000 years, even in permafrost, and its irradiation will surely less degrades the DNA and its information than its normal aging. This must of course be confirmed by experimental way.


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