Science Channel showcases Gill’s pursuit of ‘Lost Beasts of the Ice Age’

Jacquelyn Gill stood entranced inside a permafrost cave in Siberia. Woolly mammoth tusks protruded through glistening walls. A lion cub, dead for 30,000 or more years, appeared as if it was napping.

“In those 30 minutes (inside the cave), I had the opportunity to get closer to the landscape I’ve devoted my career to understanding than the rest of my whole life as a scientist,” says the University of Maine paleoecologist.

Gill, who studies the geology of the past and geographical distribution of living things through space and time, was a member of an international all-star research team taking part in a September 2018 expedition to film “Lost Beasts of the Ice Age.”

The special premiered Feb. 28 on the Science Channel. Subscribers can watch the 84-minute show online.

The permafrost caves in Siberia — made by residents with high-powered water hoses searching for tusks to sell to collectors — provide a new window into the past, says Gill.

She and other scientists are eager to throw open the window.

“We don’t know what we’ll find and we want to capitalize on what the tunnels are revealing about lost worlds. These are the best specimens in the world,” Gill says of tusks, bones and mummies of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, wolves, lions and birds.

Some specimens are nearly fully intact, frozen in place an ice age ago.

In a Science Channel Facebook video, Gill says of the permafrost cave, “It’s like walking into some kind of fairy wonderland … I don’t even have words to describe it; it’s like a living thing. It’s real.”

To enter the wonderland, Gill climbed down a ladder made of small logs into a muddy trench with high walls. She then crawled through a small opening into a long, low tunnel. Eventually, Gill turned a corner and entered an open, frost-sparkled chamber with bits of grass hanging from the ceiling and bones and tusks frozen in the walls.

After filming of the magical experience wrapped, Gill began to feel ill. On the trek home, she was diagnosed with deep vein thrombosis in her legs and pulmonary embolism in her lungs. In Yakutsk, she was hospitalized for nearly three weeks, one of which was in intensive care. Gill continued her recuperation in a hotel for 10 days before returning home in an air ambulance.

“Personally, I learned to do things that scare you,” she says of participating in the project. “It’s almost always worth it. I say that and I almost died.”

Last summer, Gill got the call asking if she’d like to take part in the excursion. Despite the short notice and looming deadlines and commitments, she got a visa issued by Russia, and headed out. Far out.

She traveled by bus to Boston, and took commercial flights to London, then Moscow and then Yakutsk, the coldest city on Earth and the largest in the immense Sakha region of Russia. There, she boarded a small cargo aircraft that landed on a gravel airstrip in the boreal forest of Belaya Gora, which is located on the Indigirka River in the Arctic Circle.

“It was very Indiana Jones,” Gill says.

September is an ideal time to be in Siberia, says Gill. The temperature is 30–45 degrees Fahrenheit; not super cold yet cold enough to keep the swarming bugs at bay.  

To get to the cave from base camp — where local caterers prepared food for the team — the scientists, film crew, translators, a permafrost safety expert, and doctor boarded a small river cruise boat each day for a three- to four-hour ride. When the water became too shallow for the cruise boat, the team transferred to motorized aluminum boats to continue upriver.

When the water became too shallow for the aluminum boats, the team hiked for about an hour in “permafrost quicksand” to get to the cave. There, tusk hunters had set up makeshift tents and kettles of muddy tea over a fire.

“All of us feel we didn’t have enough time,” says Gill of the time allotted in the cave.

Us included Tori Herridge, paleontologist at the Natural History Museum in London.

“The quest to understand the extinction of so many large animals at the end of the last ice age — and whether humans, or climate change, or both, were responsible — has never felt so important in a world where wildlife is under increasing threat,” Herridge told TV Weekly.

Us also included George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School.

He seeks to genetically engineer a mammoth-elephant hybrid. Scientists believe the animals could slow the thawing of the Arctic permafrost that contains about 1,500 billion tons of planet-warming carbon.

The re-introduced mammoth-elephants would trample trees and shrubs to re-create grasslands (which absorbs less heat than trees). In the winter, the animals would compact snow (an insulator), allowing the frigid temperatures to cool the ground.

In the permafrost cave, a 34,000-year-old wolf (from an extinct breed) was located, as well as a spear and rectangular piece of mammoth skin, indicating the presence of humans.

A tusk hunter handed Gill a bird — possibly 40,000 years old — with stomach contents intact. Another directed her to a clump of muddy grass in the tunnel that contained a preserved moth.

Birds, moths and plants of the last ice age are key to understanding its food web, says Gill, who examines causes and consequences of extinctions.

She says survivors of the Pleistocene — the epoch from about 2,588,000 to 11,700 years ago — also yield valuable information and lessons.

“We want to know what strategies made them successful,” Gill says. “This gives me hope that there’s more resilience built into nature.”

Before embarking on the trip, Gill was concerned that what’s going on politically in the world now might infringe on her ability to explore what went on in Siberia in the past.

But politics are politics, she says, and people are people. Gill says her experiences with tusk hunters in Siberia and with medical professionals in Russia were collegial and positive.

And she looks forward to returning. Gill earned an $800,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award to explore “Environmental Change and Extinction on the Mammoth Steppe.”

During the last ice age, grasslands that supported mammoths and bison covered large portions of the Arctic. But by 10,000 years ago, this habitat — the mammoth steppe — had disappeared. So too, had the large mammals who lived there.

Gill says it’s not known whether “extinction was a cause or an effect of habitat loss.” To find out, she’ll reconstruct ecological prehistory to establish the timing and nature of extinction, environmental change and habitat loss.

“Herbivores remain some of the most threatened animals today, so understanding the ‘Serengeti of the ice age’ can help in the management of Earth’s largest animals today, and may provide insights into the role native grazers play in a warming Arctic,” she wrote.

Gill will visit several Arctic locations, including Wrangel Island Reserve (the last known location of woolly mammoths on Earth) and Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where Sergey and Nikita Zimov are working to restore the mammoth steppe ecosystem. They’ve brought in bison, musk ox, moose, horses and reindeer to do that.

They’re awaiting woolly mammoths.

Contact: Beth Staples, 207.581.3777