While Japan is typically seen as a temperate island country known for sweaty summers and chill winters, its large geographical range belies this stereotype. As you travel up north along the island of Hokkaido and surrounding territories, you’ll see how cold Japan can become in places. There are even a few places where permafrost develops, which is a formation where rock and soil maintains subzero temperatures for an extended period of time. Permafrost has the property of being able to preserve life forms for extremely long periods of time, giving us many discoveries about various species of plants and animals that were found in permafrost regions. The most well-known of these preserved animals is the Woolly Mammoth, an enormous mammal which co-existed with some of the earliest human communities before becoming extinct roughly 5,000 years ago. This animal represents one of the earliest parts of human history, so it was no surprise that discoveries relating to the Woolly Mammoth draw lots of attention. At the 2019 Woolly Mammoth Exhibition at the Miraikan Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Odaiba in Tokyo, Japan, we learned about the past, present, and future of this noble creature.
The exhibit is divided into three sections, each focusing on examining the Woolly Mammoth in different periods. In the first section, The Ancient Times, the audience can observe a number of preserved skeletons and objects including mammoth hair, early human tools, and even a large Woolly Mammoth skeleton! This part of the exhibit teaches us more about the period the Woolly Mammoth lived in when it thrived, and the relationships to other creatures it formed during this time. My personal favorite for the Ancient Times was the preserved body of a mammoth calf known as “Dima”, which taught me more about the mammoth after seeing one that died at a young age.
In the second part of the exhibit, visitors learned about the process behind unearthing and preserving these ancient creatures. We followed the story of a Japanese research team as they traveled to the isolated Sakha Republic in Russia to research and excavate sections of permafrost. Because the remains of these creatures can be both delicate and large in size, special care is taken when moving them, often requiring the entire team along with a motor sled pulling the finds out of the ground. You can find more preserved remains here, ranging from a massive Yukagir bison to a small bird hardly larger than your hand. This place was a great resource for learning more about the active process of paleontology, and even has a replica of the kind of permafrost soil layers that can trap and preserve animals for thousands of years.
In the final part of the exhibit, we saw the ongoing project by teams of scientists in Japan to advance understanding of the Woolly Mammoth through the extraction of DNA samples from preserved specimens. Through a humorous look told through manga-style caricatures, the amount of people in Japan dedicated to working on this mission may surprise you. Some of the scientists provided statements describing their movement as a “moonshot” – a long-term goal meant to inspire a group to work together to fulfill it. The end result is shown as a full-sized replica of a Woolly Mammoth, complete with modern symbols like a tracking collar. While a Woolly Mammoth may not be revived within our lifetimes, seeing study of it as a transition from studying fossils to extracting blood from mummified mammoths is a very inspiring picture of how vast mankind’s curiosity in the unknown is.