Earlier this month, the discovery of a new frozen baby cave lion made headlines as a reminder of the incredible preservation power of ice under the right circumstances. But out of the handful of frozen baby animals from the Ice Age that have been discovered, the most famous is Lyuba, the baby woolly mammoth. And now, this celebrity is spending some time Down Under! 

Lyuba on display at a former exhibition at the Royal BC Museum in Canada. This little mammoth has visited several countries since her exhumation! Image: Ruth Hartnup/Flickr

Lyuba was born on a late-spring day in Siberia about 42,000 years ago. She spent the next 35 days following in the shadow of her much larger mother, feasting on mom's poop and milk, before an unfortunate accident found her submerged under a deep mass of mud, and she did not resurface.

Her story is a sad one, but the same frosty mud that led to her demise also contained the right combination of acid-forming bacteria and permafrost that allowed the baby mammoth's body to become one of the best-preserved mammoth specimens in the world.

Now Lyuba is the centrepiece in an exhibit called Mammoths – Giants of the Ice Age, which will be featured at the Australian Museum in Sydney until May. As is the life (or in this case, afterlife) of so many celebrities, Lyuba has spent the last several years travelling around the world, making stops in such places as London, British Columbia and Chicago, but this is her first time in the Southern Hemisphere.

It was a morning in May in the Yamal Peninsula of Siberia that a local reindeer herder named Yuri Khudi and his sons first saw the frozen remains of Lyuba exposed on a sandbar of the Yuribey River. Khudi and his friend Kirill Serotetto summoned local authorities to retrieve the little mammoth, though not before it was collected by Khudi's cousin and sold to a local storeowner. While propped up outside the store, Lyuba had part of her tail and right ear gnawed off by stray dogs.

If not for those minor damages, the little hairy pachyderm would be pretty much perfect. Once she was safely at the Shemanovsky Museum in Salekhard, scientists were able to examine her. On the outside, the skin, hair and even eyelashes were still present, and digging deeper allowed researchers to explore her DNA, internal organs and even her last meal.

It was from that wealth of preserved information that palaeontologists were able to discern all kinds of details about the mammoth's diet (her tummy was full of milk and twice-digested plant material), age (35 days old at the time of her death ~41.8 thousand years ago), and cause of death (her airways were full of mud).

Woolly mammoths are among the most iconic animals of the last Ice Age. For over 100,000 years, they roamed the continents of Europe, Asia and North America, before disappearing with many other large mammals during the Pleistocene megafaunal extinction. The only woolly mammoths ever to make it to Australia have done so – like Lyuba – posthumously.

The baby mammoth does a lot of travelling, but it's not always easy to get her out of her home country. "One of the first things we had to do before we brought Lyuba over here was absolutely guarantee our Russian colleagues that there was no possibility of her getting seized," said Trevor Aheard, creative producer at the Australian Museum, "because there is some controversy over who owns her."

In the exhibit, Lyuba – whose name means "love" (she was named after Khudi's wife) – will be surrounded by models of adult mammoths who will serve as a protective herd, keeping this little international treasure safe as she is admired by the curious visitors who will flock to see her.



Top header image: Ruth Hartnup/Flickr