Location: East Siberian Taiga, Sakha Region, Russia
In August 2016, explorer Josh Gates and the team from Travel Channel’s hit series Expedition Unknown joined Korean genetics lab Sooam Biotech and Siberian scientists from the North Eastern Federal University on an expedition to study the iconic woolly mammoth. The goal – to find preserved DNA from mammoth remains recently unearthed in the melting Siberian permafrost. The team from Sooam hopes recovering intact DNA could allow them to clone the largest mammal to ever walk the earth. The Korean and Siberian scientists hope for two possibilities:
1) To extract a fully intact genome which would provide the complete genetic code required to clone a woolly mammoth.
2) Find long chains of genetic material and through what is called paleo-genetics eventually piece together the complete genetic blueprint using advanced technology.
The trick in recovering “good” DNA is to get it before it has a chance to degrade. Gates, and the Expedition Unknown team joined forces with scientists bound for the desolate Siberian taiga in search of recently exposed and well preserved woolly mammoth remains. In this remote region, the permafrost-laden ground acts as a kind of freezer, trapping remains of Pleistocene flora and fauna, and hopefully, intact DNA.
The trip started in Yakutsk, Siberia the capitol of the Sakha region famously known as the coldest city on earth. With temperatures plummeting to -80 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter, the crew was relived to be passing through in the height of summer where temps were decidedly less lethal. After joining up with the Siberian Scientists, the expedition team numbered 15 people, including the film crew, scientists, medic, and local production support. The group boarded a soviet era Antonov AV-26 and made the bumpy 415 mile flight north to the small village of Batagay inside the Arctic circle. Once airborne it was easy to see why Soviet prisoners were exiled to Siberia as a seemingly endless and unexplored wilderness passed below.
Once a “bustling” mining town, Batagay is currently home to about 4,000 residents. However, the streets were mostly empty during this expedition as townspeople make a mass exodus south during the summer months when travel is possible and light is abundant. Abandoned buildings, junked cars, and dilapidated industrial machinery set an eerie backdrop to the few local kids playing in the street and curious faces passing by in Russian UAZ vans. The town proved a comfortable place to stage for the expedition, though a heaviness from the former gulag concentration camps and the threat of encroaching winter seemed to hang over the town. After making last preparations in Batagay, the mission moved north and into the wilderness searching for woolly mammoth remains.
The Expedition Unknown team headed to “the gateway to the underworld,” as locals call it. It’s official name is the Batagay crater. In the 1960s, loggers clear cut a portion of the forests, and eventually, the small swath of land turned into the worlds largest “mega-slump,” a sinkhole roughly 300 feet deep and up to a mile long. To understand the crater and why it’s a good site to find mammoth remains, one must understand the basics of permafrost. Permafrost is, quite simply, frozen ground. As thousands of years have passed, animals and plants have become trapped in the permafrost in a stratified manner. Meaning the deeper you go, the older the remains you will find. Thus, as the sinkhole continues to grow, expand, and melt from the warming planet, the remains from the past are constantly being exposed and unearthed. Once at the lip of the crater, Josh, the scientists, and a small crew rappelled 300 feet down the collapsing cliff-side to the crater floor. Once at the bottom of the crater, the team extracted marrow from several mammoth leg bones and stored the samples on dry ice for transport back to the lab.
After climbing out of the Batagay crater, the team headed even further into the wilderness. Using 8 small boats and a hydrofoil, the expedition motored about 6 hours north to a remote tusk hunter encampment at a location called Yunugen. With growing demand for so-called humane ivory around the world, Siberian hunters have flocked to the melting permafrost to find and excavate woolly mammoth tusks. Its become a booming industry with finds earning camps up to 50,000 USD per tusk. Backed by high stakes and big money, hunters will camp on the tiaga for months at a time blasting water canons into the permafrost and boring extensive tunnel systems to reach the remains. These encampments have become a promising location for scientists seeking mammoth DNA. Although hunters are exclusively looking for large, well preserved tusks, they often unearth other Pleistocene remains including prehistoric birds, rhinoceroses, and sometimes even full woolly mammoth carcasses. No member of the joint expedition (especially with an American film crew in tow) had ever been to Yunugen, and it was unclear what the local reception would be. Fortunately, the Siberian scientists were able to ingratiate our group with the normally reclusive hunters, and the locals agreed to allow the Expedition Unknown team onsite as long as the cameras didn’t show their faces. This was a big win, not only considering the journey to get there, but also the scientific discoveries that were soon to be made!
After negotiations were finished, the Expedition Unknown team were invited to set up camp for several days and joined the scientists as they worked to collect as much DNA as possible. Tusks, bones, a never before found prehistoric bird, and even the best-preserved mammoth droppings ever discovered were found! It was an incredible experience and more successful than the expedition could have hoped for. Back in the lab in Yakutsk, valuable chains of genetic information were collected, including one of the longest strands of mammoth DNA ever collected. These finds will continue to be processed, as scientists work to better understand the mammoth and how to resurrect the king of the ice age mammals.