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It's a gnarled beast, but more than 9,000 years of being frozen solid in the Siberian tundra hadn't exactly been beauty rest.

The permafrost conditions, however, did preserve one beauty of a specimen for the world of natural science. A yak at first glance, the creature is actually a 9,300-year-old mummified bull Steppe bison that has remained completely intact, one of only two ever discovered.

Sadly, despite weighing almost two-thirds of a ton, he apparently died because he couldn't find enough to eat.

Because of its connection to a pair of local scientists, the bison may be making an appearance at the Mammoth Site in Hot Springs. 

Two researchers from the Mammoth Site, Olga Potapova and Larry Agenbroad, spent much of the last three years helping a team of Russian scientists study the mummy known now as the Yukagir Bison, named for the community of Yukagir in eastern Siberia, where it was found in 2010.

Long extinct, the species is believed to have died off near the end of the Ice Age roughly 10,000 years ago with the likes of saber-toothed tigers and mammoths.

Despite such a gap in time, a physical likeness of the mummified bison can still be seen among American bison like those roaming Custer State Park today.

Potapova joined her Russian colleagues in November to present the team's findings to the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology at its annual conference in Berlin. Originally from St. Petersburg, Russia, she had previously researched Steppe bison and since 2001 has been studying mammals modern and extinct at the Mammoth Site.

Agenbroad died shortly before the November presentation, but among his other roles, he was vital in making sure the creature was in fact a bison. The team's research was selected as a feature presentation by the society, which chose only nine reports of 900 overall submissions.

Next year, the physical and natural sciences journal Quaternary International will feature the Yukagir Bison research, which is continuing.

Radiocarbon-date estimates put the bison at 9,300 years old. The scientists estimate that it stood more than 5 feet tall at the shoulders and weighed up to 1,300 pounds, Potapova said. A study of its intact incisor teeth led the researchers to believe it died at about age 4.

At 4 years old with room to grow, the Yukagir Bison would have been roughly the same size and stature as a 6-year-old American bison in terms of weight, height at the shoulders and width between the tips of horns, Potapova said.

"It showed some similarities to the modern American bison," Potapova said. "It's big for its age." 

The massive creature probably died hungry. The researchers' cause-of-death hypothesis stems from a sheer lack of fat reserves found in the abdomen and neck areas of the animal.

"This animal completely lacked subcutaneous (meaning under-the-skin) fat, and this is an indication that the animal might have died from starvation," she said. "There were no injuries found on this bison, so it wasn't killed by predators."

In late 2011, the South Dakota scientists had been asked by the Yakutian Academy of Sciences in Yakutsk, Russia, to take part in the study by researching points of interest like the age, weight and size of the bison, and how it compared to modern varieties of the mammal.

The two scientists worked from home base until this past spring when Potapova joined the team in Russia to take an inside look of the creature by completing a necropsy.

Because of the completeness of the specimen, the Yukagir Bison is unique on several fronts. Potapova said body parts like the lips, ears, tail and genitals would typically have been eaten long ago by predators.

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"That is what's usually missing on the carcasses found in the Arctic," Potapova said. "This bison was absolutely complete. From the hooves to the horns, everything was complete."

Potapova said the research team believes the Yukagir Bison died at the end of the winter or in early spring, which is supported by its lack of fat reserves. The carcass was uncovered in a "sleeping pose" on the thawing slope of a lake, leaving the team to believe that it died peacefully.

She said the most likely reason the body remained intact is the annual partial thaw of the tundra, which quickly inundated area streams and the lake, submerging the bison before predators could get the meal.

The scientists believe the carcass continued to sink and was eventually locked in time by a covering of silt. As a result, the innards of the bison also remained perfectly preserved by the frozen cold, which allowed an extremely rare chance to examine the animal both inside and out.

"That's a whole different story," Potapova said. "The heart, lungs, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, genitals ... were all preserved and in perfect condition."

Although some of the organs couldn't be identified, the parasite-free Yukagir Bison's digestive system contained mostly remnants of grasses and herbs.

The bison mummy is being stored in a deep-freeze facility in Yakutsk. Plans are in place to showcase the mummy in Yakutsk before starting a traveling exhibit on the bison.

The Mammoth Site is working with National Park Service officials to bring the beast to the United States and, in the near future, to the Mammoth Site as part of its existing exhibit on the bison and other Siberian mummies.

"It remains one of two complete Steppe bison currently available in the world," Potapova said.

The other, which is on display in Alaska, actually is a less complete specimen because before it was mounted, she said, some body parts were removed.

Contact John Lee McLaughlin at 394-8421 or john.mclaughlin@rapidcityjournal.com

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