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Searching for mammoth bones on the Siberian tundra

May 1, 2014
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Caleb Fogel gets close to the fire as Chris Whalen watches from behind on the Siberian tundra.

Caleb Fogel gets close to the fire as Chris Whalen watches from behind on the Siberian tundra.

Slices of raw, frozen horse meat were served for dinner. Clouds of mosquitoes swarmed overhead. And showers and toilets weren’t available for weeks at a time on Siberia’s windswept tundra.

The thought of living in such rugged, isolated conditions overseas used to terrify Chris Whalen, a University of Michigan senior who spent a month searching for woolly mammoth bones in Siberia. He viewed the dig as a test of whether he could handle the fieldwork involved in pursuing a career in paleontology.

He ended up loving it.

“All the doubts I had about how I would handle those situations were resolved,” said Whalen, 22, who recently accepted a position in the doctoral paleontology program at Yale University.

“Any fieldwork that I’ll be doing in my career can’t be much more extreme than what I experienced during that trip,” added the student, graduating with a double major in geological science and ecology and evolutionary biology.

Most of the trip in August 2012 was spent walking along permafrost cliffs bordering the Arctic Ocean, streams and lake-shores, Whalen said.  “There were so many bones – both mammoth and others – in some of these locations that you sometimes had to make an effort not to step on them. I really cannot stress this enough – if we collected every fossil we found, we could easily have filled a semi-truck with the material.”

Whalen’s group of four students – led by U-M paleontologist Daniel Fisher – was particularly interested in mammoth teeth, and they found many of them. They also collected fossil material from steppe bison, woolly rhino, steppe horse, reindeer and some unknown birds.

Fisher said the group’s paleontological discoveries were significant. But the specimens are still immersed in the bureaucracy of export permits and may take even another year to arrive in Ann Arbor, he added.

“However, the discoveries the students made about themselves are already making them better scholars and more satisfied and adventurous human beings,” Fisher said. “There’s no way to package this or squeeze it out of a syllabus.  It just has to be shared from one generation to another.”

Also on the trip was Caleb Fogel, another senior who was looking for an experience that would shove him far outside of his comfort zone.

“The Siberia trip was by far the most significant experience I had at Michigan, and I don’t know where else I could have gotten that. I don’t know anyone else who’s gone to Siberia for a month to dig up mammoth fossils,” said Fogel, 22, graduating with a double major in earth and environmental sciences and the Program in the Environment.

The students lay out the fossils they have collected.

The students lay out the fossils they have collected.

When they weren’t searching for bones or hacking mammoth teeth from the melting permafrost with hatchets, the group camped out in tents or slept in crude wooden hunting shacks. They went weeks without the Internet and running water. Meals were cooked over wood fires, but often meat and fish were eaten raw, following the local custom.

“We watched the locals pull the live fish out of nets in the river, slice them up, season them with salt and pepper, serve it to us,” said Fogel, who plans to pursue a career in forest ecology. “They had the capabilities to cook it. They just preferred to eat it raw at times.”

Another common item on the menu was uncooked horse meat, sliced in strips as thin as bacon. People would dip the meat in bowls of salt and pepper, Whalen said.

“The overwhelming taste was salt and pepper, with an un-flavored jerky-like undertaste,” he said. “I would say that it tastes very similar to the raw frozen fish we had.  We had cooked horse on one occasion as well and that tastes similar to beef.”

Swarms of mosquitoes were a major annoyance, but the strange thing is that they never came out at night, Whalen said.

“They were most active during the dusk when temperatures were around 60 degrees,” he said.  “This was when you could kill hundreds of mosquitoes simply by whacking your hand on your leg.  During the day, temperatures could reach the 80s and 90s, while the mosquitoes were still active, the same swat would kill a more modest 20 to 30 mosquitoes.”

Despite the hardships, the experience also had a big impact on Fogel and helped him decide which direction he wants to go in after graduation.

“The trip definitely solidified in my mind the fact that I want to spend a lot of my time outdoors, including in remote areas,” he said. “I also know that I don’t ever want to eat raw horse again.”



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