Chapter 7: Shandrin Mammoth

The Shandrin mammoth bull they have found at the Shandrin River, NE Siberia, in a giant "mole-hill", in front of the fossil ice, near the arctic coast. When has this elephant lived? In what kind of a climate has he lived up there? How has he perished? How has the Shandrin Mammoth gotten into this giant "mole-hill"? What have scientists found out about this?

Map of Northeast Asia, with places, where they have found the remains of the woolly mammoth and its companions. The Shandrin River lies east of the delta of the Indigirka River, at the arctic coast. From: Vereshchagin and Baryshnikov (1982:270) Fig. 1.

Professor N, K. Vereshchagin reports: "Our Yakut colleagues, the geologists P. A. Lazarev and B. S. Rusanov, learnt in summer 1972 of the discovery of the mammoth skeleton on the river Shandrina, on the east side of the Indigirka delta. It lay in a baydzherakh region in alluvium a little above river level. The soil hosed away revealed the entire skeleton. It had been an old animal, for its back molars were missing. An earlier visitor had cut off the tusks. It had perhaps died a natural death of old age, for it lay on its stomach with its legs in front, a position characteristic of dying elephants.

The surface of the bones, the ribs in particular, was coloured dark blue by vivianite, indicating an anaerobic condition of silty deposits in fresh water. No wool, muscle, or ligament was preserved but, protected by the rib cage and iliac bones, the internal organs were more or less intact. A 250-kg frozen block containing the half-decomposed tissue of stomach, intestine, and other organs was taken to the permafrost pit in Yakutsk for further study. On the surface of this block near the lumbar vertebrate, Rusanov collected 12 large larvae of a stomach warble. Larvae of this genus, Cobboldia, live in the stomach of the modern Indian elephant." (1974:8, 9).

"Botanist V. V. Ukraintseva states about the Shandrin mammoth: "The skeleton proved to be of an old, though not particularly big, male mammoth, 60-70 years old (Vereshchagin, 1975). It was embedded in laminated river loam interbedded with coarse gravel. Under a cover of ribs and broad pelvis bones, the internal organs could be seen as well as a well preserved frozen monolith." Dissection showed that the mammoth had died of asphyxia. His stomach contents contained also the pollen of the sedge Kobresia capilliformis Ivanova. (1993:158). Asphyxia = choking to death, for instance, through drowning.

A little further southwest, at the upper Indigirka River, the stomach contents of a wild horse, found in the frozen ground, contained also many seeds of the sedge Kobresia capilliformis.

Professor R. Dale Guthrie says about the sedge Kobresia capilliformis: "This xeric sedge species, Ukraintseva remarks, is not present in the Indigirka area today, but is a typical plant in the high dry mountains of central Asia, the Middle East, and Mongolia. She concluded that it had been abundant in the area where the horse died.

"Interestingly, John Matthews identified a species of Kobresia seeds in the pelt of the Colorado Creek mammoth, found near McGrath, (Western) Alaska. This rather xeric [dry] sedge also grows in Mongolia. The mat of the mammoth hairs was loaded with these small black Kobresia seeds, although the stomach contents (epidermal analysis) showed mostly grasses (85%) and a few sedges." The Carbon-14 dates of remains of the Colorado mammoth site in West Alaska ranged from 12 980 to 22 850 yrs B.P. (1990:33, 34).

Where is this plant growing now? According to Professor Heinrich Walter (1974), the sedge Kobresia capilliformis is growing now on the central Asian mountains, on Tienshan, where it is moist, forming Kobresia capilliformis-meadows, at 40-42°N. It is also found on the Pamir Range, the central Asian High Plateau, forming meadows, at 37°N. That is some 4,700 km further southwest from the place, where the Shandrin mammoth was found, near 70°N, east of the Indigirka delta, close to the Arctic Ocean.

In what kind of a climate has this plant grown at 70°N, east of the Indigirka delta? – At the middle course of the Shandrin River, near 70°N, where the remains of the mammoth bull were found, the net radiation at the earth’s surface is now 10 kcal/cm² (8-12 kcal/cm²) according to different authors) per year. In central Asia, Kobresia capilliformis is growing now at 37-42°N. The net radiation at the earth’s surface in the low areas and on the south-facing slopes is there 50 kcal/cm² per year. That is five times more than at 70°N. From this I do conclude: The annual net radiation near the earth’s surface at the middle course of the Shandrin River, near 70°N, must also have been around 50 kcal/cm², when the mammoth was grazing up there. Northeast Siberia’s Arctic Coast must have had then a climate, as we find it now in Central Asia near 40°N, some 4,700 km further southwest. A zonal dry steppe cannot grow in an arctic climate. It has to be then much warmer. 

Died of old age?

The Shandrin mammoth bull was about 60-70 years old. His back molars were missing. He lay on his belly. Hence, he must have died of old age, Professor N. K. Vereshchagin concludes. – Is that true? At least two reasons are making this rather doubtful.

1) During the great drought in Tsavo East National Park, in Kenya, East Africa, in 1970/71, about 5,900 elephants have starved to death. The British biologist Malcolm Coe, University of Oxford, has studied their carcasses. He found out: All the dead elephants found dead lay on their sides (1979:76, 77)

2) Very old woolly mammoths were faring quite well in the Far North, also when they had lost their last set of molars (chewing teeth), and not only their back molars. - Professor W. G. Garrutt, one of the world’s leading elephant experts, found out: "On some of the skulls of very old mammoths from the uttermost North of East Siberia, the author (W. E. Garutt) found that the last molars have been worn down so much, that only small pieces of a few square centimeters of them remained. All the alveoli (holes, wherein the tooth has set), were completely filled up with a grown bone-substance. Similar pieces have been described from Alaska.

"One can only wonder, how those animals were still able to find enough to eat. The fact that these mammoths have reached such an old age, testifies to the favorable living conditions of these animals in Siberia and Alaska, and to the presence of relatively soft and nourishing fodder during this time. ... The questions and reasons, as to why the mammoths have died out, are extraordinarily complex. It is hard to imagine how an animal was able to disappear, that has been adapted so well to the rough climatic conditions and the coarse plant-food. Rather strange is also, that the mammoth, which has survived the ice age so well, died out, just at a time, when the climatic conditions on its range became more favorable." (1964:71, 130). 

Stomach Warble Cobboldia

On the frozen intestines of the mammoth bull, recovered in 1972 at the River Shandrin, geologist Rusanov found close to the lumbar vertebrate 12 large larvae of the stomach warble. Larvae of this genus, Cobboldia, do live now in the stomach of the Indian elephant. What does this insect show us about the climate, in which the mammoth has lived in Northeast Siberia, and about the plant-cover on which it has grazed? What does it tell us about the mammoth density of Northeast Siberia? Is Cobboldia also able to survive, where only a few elephants are living? A few years ago, I asked a geologist from Yakutsk: Where has the North Siberian mammoth lived in winter? – He replied: In autumn the mammoth wandered south to Central Asia and to India. – I asked him: What proof do you have for this? – He replied: The same kind of stomach warble fly Cobboldia, which was found on the intestines of the Shandrin mammoth, is also living now in the Indian elephant. – Does that prove that the North Siberian mammoth went in autumn to India? Is this fly also of the same species?

Scott A. Elias, an American insect expert, says: "Grunin (1973) described an extinct species of bot fly associated with a mammoth carcass found on the Shandrin River in northeastern Siberia. Larval exuviae of Cobboldia russanovi were recovered from the mammoth carcass. Some species of bot flies are known to parasite modern elephants, but these fossils do not match any known extant species, so perhaps the species they represent became extinct along with their host." (1994:171).

I wrote to Dr. R. K. Sundaram, Professor of Parasitology at the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences in Mannuthy, Kerala, India. He has studied the warble fly for 30 years.

Professor Sundaram replied in his letter of July 30th, 1979: "Technically even a few elephants in a locality is sufficient to keep the flies going, but in our experience, Cobboldia maggots are seen in animals that lived in herds. We have quite a number of elephants in Kerala, and catching and domestication is more or less a continuous process. There will be congregations of elephants, very often to take part in public or religious functions. Here at Trichur itself about 100 to 150 elephants gather for a two days festival once a year. Yet if we get any postmortem, bot are encountered only very rarely. Therefore, under forced conditions, like the one you find in a foreign zoo (where wild elephant herds are non existent) there is little possibility of the flies establishing themselves. Adverse climatic conditions, paucity of elephant host, long breeding cycle of the fly etc. weigh very much against the fly. Only one crop of the flies emerges in a year even in ideal localities.

"Pupal period under tropical conditions is for 3 weeks. The adult flies, like other members of the Family Oestridae do not feed at all during the adult stage and live only for a maximum period of 20 day. Naturally if no hosts are available during the adult stage for laying eggs, the cycle is broken. With just two or three animals and that too very well looked after ones, it may not be possible for the flies to thrive indefinitely. A herd or herds of elephants are probably indispensable."

Is the warble fly or bot fly Cobboldia also found in the African elephant? What does that indicate about the density of the elephant population? – I wrote to S. K. Eltringham, Dept. of Zoology, University of Cambridge, England.

He replied on May 30th, 1995: "Bot flies do indeed occur in African elephants and are common everywhere. One was described as Cobboldia loxodontis but it is now known as Platycobboldia loxidontis. There is another bot fly, the elephant throat bot fly, which is confined to elephants of the central rain forests of Africa. As the name suggests, it is found in the throat. There are other bot flies that live in the stomach of African elephants including the green and blue species.

"I am afraid that I can’t help you over the question of fly infestation in relation to elephant densities. I rather doubt that the information is available, for taxonomic entomologists are not usually interested in the population dynamics of the hosts and elephant biologists often ignore the parasites. One might expect that the chances of the fly finding a new host has been reduced following the disastrous loss of so many elephants in some areas especially as the adult fly is short-lived."

Saiga Antelope and Warble Fly

The warble fly can only survive, where enough host animals are living. This, also the saiga antelope in central Asia will show us. Professor V. G. Heptner et al. (1974) II p. 597, found out: "First, the saiga antelope had to suffer much under the warble fly Pallasiomyia antilopum. At the end of the 1920s, the saiga antelope was so heavily hunted that only a few were left, and the warble fly died out. From the 1930s onward, one has not found it anymore. The warble fly has only remained with the isolated saiga population of the Mongolian subspecies."


The stomach warble fly Cobboldia in the woolly mammoth of northeastern Siberia was able to survive up there, because many large herds of these elephants were grazing there. The warble fly is only able to live, where the density of its host animals is high. Large densities (= large herds) of elephants are only able to live, where they find enough food. Enough food they will only find in a mild, temperate climate. There the growing season of the plants is very long. And there is no arctic winter. In an arctic climate this is not possible. The warble fly Cobboldia, found in the Shandrin mammoth bull, does not match any of the known species of Cobboldia, living now in the Indian and African elephant. So, the species of warble fly, living in the woolly mammoth of northeastern Siberia, seems to have died out with its host.

Roshin’s Mammoth

Also in the past, they have found whole mammoths in the flesh near the lower Indigirka River. Baron G. Maydell was traveling as a high official of the Imperial government across NE Siberia. At the lower Indigirka he was told about a whole mammoth. It had been found a little south of the Shandrin River: at the Shangin River, near 69°N. The Imperial government in St. Petersburg had offered a reward for reporting bodies of mammoths, that had been found. At the lower Indigirka, Baron Maydell was talking with the natives, also with a certain Strukof, about mammoth tusks and whole mammoth bodies. Strukof regretted it very much that one hears about this reward only now. For then one sometimes "could have made a piece of money". Strukof then told Maydell:

"The well-known Roshin has searched all of his life for mammoth tusks. And he has been more often on the islands of the Arctic Sea, than most of the inhabitants of Russkoye Ust-Yansk. Some thirty years ago, together with his son Prokofij, still living in Russkoye, he was traveling down the Shangin (River), flowing near Oshogin into the Indigirka. Some 150 verst (160 km) above its mouth, in the riverbank, they found a mammoth. Only the head, which hung down deeply and both of the forelegs could be seen. The body and the whole hind-part were sticking in the (frozen) earth. Since the animal was standing upright in the ground, the old Roshin concluded that those animals used to die, while standing upright. The head and the legs were covered with hair. It only had two short tusks. Roshin chopped them off and took them along." - Maydell, G. (1893)