Wednesday, May 29, 2013

New mammoth comes with grains of salt

Frozen mammoths are rare. That's why I was excited to hear this morning to that a new one had discovered. Over the last three centuries, only seventy-three frozen mammoths with skin or flesh attached have been reported. Most were only partial--a foot or a piece of skin--some were only seen with nothing being recovered. However, despite being exciting news, there were several things about the story that set off alarms in my head and made me cringe.

First, is the headline and hook to the story: "Russian scientists make rare find of 'blood' in mammoth." The significance of the blood is explained in the story. Semyon Grigoryev, the head of the team examining the mammoth explained:

"When we broke the ice beneath her stomach, the blood flowed out from there, it was very dark. This is the most astonishing case in my entire life. How was it possible for it to remain in liquid form? And the muscle tissue is also red, the colour of fresh meat."

Liquid blood strikes me as more than astonishing; it borders on completely impossible. Thawed blood, yes. Remaining liquid for over ten thousand years surrounded by rock-hard ice and frozen flesh, no. Grigoryev says they found the blood on the underside of the carcass. This means they had already chipped and thawed their way to that spot, that it had already been exposed to heat when he dug into it.

The bit about the color of the meat is pure melodrama. This is something that is said about most discoveries of frozen Pleistocene animals. When Pfitzenmayer and Herz excavated the famous Berezovka mammoth in 1901, they commented on how fresh the meat looked. They also said the smell of the thawed meat was so bad that they could only work short shifts digging it out before they had to run for fresh air.

My second alarm was, perhaps unfairly, the presence of Grigoryev himself. Grigoryev is a partner with disgraced Korean cloner Hwang Woo-suk. Hwang, for those who don't know or remember, is a very skilled scientist whose career imploded in 2005-6 over fraudulent claims that he had cloned human stem cells. Naturally, the liquid blood is being touted as a big step forward in eventually cloning a mammoth. The cloning angle appears in the first sentence of the story.

The presence of Hwang and the cloning frame don't necessarily disqualify Grigoryev. Last year, he announced the discovery of another mammoth, a young male that they named Zhenya. The announcement included a great deal of hype about it being the most complete mammoth ever recovered. At the time I had never heard of Grigoryev. However, despite the hyperbole and his being new to the scene, it appears the discovery was legit. Zhenya was excavated and moved to St. Petersburg where Alexei Tikhonov, an old hand at mammoth research, confirmed that it really is an important find.

The third alarm, for me, is the photograph attached to the story that purports to be an actual shot taken at the excavation. The photo shows a person in cold-weather gear, a surgical mask, and nitrile gloves. The person is down on one knee in front of a large hunk of the mammoth that has already been loaded onto a sled. The person appears to be filling a test-tube and we are left to believe the person is extracting blood from the carcass. The caption reads: "A researcher in Yakutsk on May 13 next to a carcass of a female mammoth found on an island in the Arctic Ocean." A second picture shows a different person's hand holding up a test tube with a few drops of blood in the bottom.

Perhaps I'm being picky, but there's no way that is can actually be a shot of the vignette suggested. Even if they found liquid blood in the mammoth when it was in the ground, it would not have stayed liquid while they excavated that piece of meat and loaded it onto a sled. The site is described as "a remote island in the Arctic Ocean." Despite the sunlight in the picture and news of record Arctic sea ice retreats, it is still very cold up there this time of year and no matter how warm the surface air gets, it remains well below freezing year-round in the permafrost.

Another reason I don't like the picture is the hunk of mammoth behind the researcher. What is that piece? Maybe it's just pareidolia, but it looks like the head and shoulders of the mammoth with its trunk dramatically raised over its head. There is no way the trunk could have stayed in that position while it froze. Maybe it was on its side while it froze? The story makes clear that that was not the case. They say the stomach was in water and the meat of the back and head were eaten by scavengers. So, the mammoth was upright and the scavengers probably got the trunk. That makes this the stomach and a leg, though the shape and position make it had to figure out just how this fits into a complete mammoth. If that is the stomach, where the blood was found, it makes another part of the story hard to understand. The mammoth location is being kept secret, they say, because the researchers don't want anyone else to steal it. If they've already excavated the stomach, they pretty much have the whole mammoth out of the ground. So, again, just what is that hunk of mammoth on the sled?

As a final gripe, let me say why I hate the cloning frame for mammoth stories. Cloning is not the news part of this story and does not belong in the lede sentence. At most, cloning is background material. The news part of the story is the discovery itself. Of those seventy-four frozen mammoth discoveries that I mentioned, this is only the fifth I know of that is a female and this one was the oldest when she died (most reports don't know or don't mention the sex). That is what should be the big deal about this news, not that someone thinks maybe they could possibly attempt to make a clone from this mammoth at some undefined time in the future. If they are able to recover satisfactory material to attempt a clone, that would be a story in its own right. If they made the attempt, that would be another story, whether they were successful or not. And, of course, if they successfully cloned a mammoth or bred a mammelephant, that would be one of the biggest science stories of the century. None of those things have happened. The news here is that a rare old female mammoth has been discovered.

The story is bad science reporting, pure and simple. It's science by press release. It allows sensationalism to bury the real science. Cloning and "will it tell us why they went extinct" stories are lazy and ignorant writing. It's crap and I do not like it. Please stop.

UPDATE - The official press release from North-Eastern Federal University in Yakutsk is a little more detailed and a lot less sensational that the PhysOrg notice. It has a less ridiculous picture and says that most of the mammoth is still in the ground and will stay there until the summer when an international group of mammoth specialists will come look at the site. The cloning angle is barely mentioned and only in the last sentence.

As for the blood, some more details were given about that, "The blood is very dark, it was found in ice cavities below the belly and when we broke these cavities with a poll pick, the blood came running out. Interestingly, the temperature at the time of excavation was -7 to –10°C. It may be assumed that the blood of mammoths had some cryoprotective properties." If that's true, that would be quite an exciting discovery. Mammoth blood did do a better job of carrying oxygen at low temperatures than does the blood of living elephants, but, so far, no one has even suspected the presence of cryoprotective properties. Why should they. We've never had a speck of evidence that mammoths hibernated and we've never found liquid blood in any other frozen carcase. I remain skeptical.

No comments: