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RESEARCHERS UNRAVEL MYSTERIES OF MAMMOTH

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He was crippled by arthritis. His bone joints had fused together. He was afflicted by disease, malnutrition and old age.

Even simple movements like turning the head or rotating the hips to walk were agonizing.Death must have been a welcome relief to the once-mighty Columbian mammoth who made its home in the Manti-LaSal Mountains east of Fairview more than 9,000 years ago.

Last Aug. 8, a construction crew working on a dam in Huntington Canyon unearthed one of the best-preserved mammoth skeletons ever found. The discovery promptly shattered preconceived notions that mammoths were plains animals who never ventured into the mountains.

Researchers now believe they have answered many of the basic questions about the mammoth: It was male and it was about 60 years old. They even have a good reason to believe this mammoth was part of a herd of mammoths who lived in those mountains.

But the more specific questions - when the mammoth lived, on what did he subsist, how did he survive Utah winters, what role did disease play in his demise - have yet to be answered.

"It's just now beginning to come together," said state paleontologist Dave Gillette.

Gillette and Murray orthopedic surgeon Robert H. Horne Saturday put several mammoth bones through a series of X-rays and CAT scans looking for clues as to why the mammoth had such a severe case of arthritis, among other things.

"You can see where his ligaments have calcified," said Horne, pointing to a CAT-scan photograph. "The ligaments and disks actually became part of the bone. And that would have made it extremely painful for him to move about."

Especially considering he was packing a pair of 10-foot-long ivory tusks, added Gillette. Not only would he have had difficulty moving his head to forage for food, but he could not have responded quickly to predators.

The current battery of tests are the latest conducted by experts from across the country, trying to unravel the mystery of Utah's mammoth.

"The preservation is so spectacular we have an unusual opportunity for research," said Gillette. "The chemical composition of the bones is almost identical with modern bone."

Gillette and state archaeologist David Madsen are heading the research, which also involves a large number of universities and governmental agencies. "It is so unique we want to involve a lot of experts in the research process," he said.

A specialist in veterinary science and another in electronic microscopy, both from Cornell University, have already examined the bones for evidence of arthritis and disease.

In addition, pollen removed from the soils has been analyzed, as have plant materials like twigs and leaves, and even fossilized insects found in the sediments.

Chemicals found in the bones are also being examined, as is the geological makeup of the different soils where they were found.

Of particular interest to scientists working on the mammoth is the variety of carbon-analysis techniques being employed. So far, the carbon methods have revealed inconsistent dates ranging from 9,400 years ago to 12,500 years ago.

If the more recent date holds, scientists could be looking at evidence of a population of mammoths that survived some 2,000 years after they became extinct elsewhere. While they probably never thrived here, they could have found an ecological niche in the central Utah mountains.

`We could be looking at 1,500 to 2,000 years of survival in a refuge habitat," said Gillette. "That could be significant."

An interesting aspect of that possibility is that a skull from a now-extinct short-faced bear was reportedly found with the mammoth. It was removed from the site and later returned to researchers.

Sediment on the skull appears to be the same as that on the mammoth, but it cannot be proved conclusively that it came from the same level, Gillette said. If it does come from the same site, it could mean the short-faced bear also survived a lot longer than traditionally believed.

To futher complicate matters, a spear point, known as a Pryor point, was reportedly removed from the mammoth site by a collector and later returned to researchers. Those kind of points have never before been associated with extinct animals like mammoths.

(There is further evidence of human contact in that one of the rib bones appears to have been fractured by a stone tool. But researchers do not know when that rib was fractured.)

What makes the discovery particularly exciting to researchers is that if the more recent dates are verified, the discovery could add considerable weight to disputed claims that mammoths survived long after the 9,000 B.C. date traditionally associated with mammoths.

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(Additional information)

Did now-extinct animals roam in Utah mountains?

While deer and elk commonly roam at the 9,400 feet elevation today, the Manti-LaSal Mountains of central Utah could once have been home to herds of another type: mammoths.

"It's pretty clear there must have been a population of Columbian mammoths in that valley," said state paleontologist Dave Gillette. "Where there is one individual, you can expect a population of them."

Climatic research indicates that the mountains east of Fairview were probably not much different than they are today. There would have been pleasant summers and long, cold winters.

Did the mammoths live in the mountains all year long? Or were there seasonal migrations?

It could have been that the mammoth was moving up the canyon in the summer and back down again as winter approached, said Gillette. But mammoths - unlike deer and elk today - were not physically suited for canyon migrations.

"It would have been difficult for mammoths," said Gillette.

But if they lived there all winter, what did they eat?

"Those are the kind of questions we are trying to answer," he said. "We don't have a lot of answers yet."