Making Mammoths Come to Life

For children growing up in the Ottawa area, the Canadian Museum of Nature is a special place for school trips or family outings. Many cherished memories have been formed within the exhibit halls and education rooms, and most of our recurring visitors are able to cite specimens or displays that made a lasting impression. For many, our woolly mammoth replicas top the list of favourites. Standing on the museum’s grounds, the three life-size sculptures of two adults and one baby have become a much-beloved sight for museum-goers and passers-by.

Three woolly mammoth sculptures on the museum’s grounds.

Our woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) as now displayed at an entrance to the museum’s new Landscapes of Canada Gardens. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature.

I recently discussed the new mammoth steppe botanical display that accompanies the hairy beasts at their new location in the Landscapes of Canada Gardens. In this blog, I will focus on the story of the replicas themselves, which are based on real fossils found in Alaska, Yukon and Siberia.

The statues were designed and built in the museum’s workshops. They were unveiled in August 1987 to coincide with the 12th International Congress of the International Union for Quaternary Research, which was hosted in Ottawa that summer by the National Research Council and two other Canadian organizations.

A view of the three mammoth sculptures from 1998.

This image from 1998 shows the replicas at their original site on the west side of the museum’s property. When installed in 1987, a row of trees formed a backdrop to create the feel of a prehistoric forest. Grasses representative of the mammoth steppe environment were planted on the berm supporting the mammoth scene. When this photo was taken, the mammoths were already museum “stars” and copies had been made for display at the grand opening in 1997 of the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

The creation of the sculptures involved three phases: the production of 1/12-scale models in modelling clay; the making of scaled-up versions in wood, foam, and plaster from which life-sized moulds were generated; and the setting of fibreglass casts in these moulds to produce the final pieces for display.

A man seated on a chair looks at notebooks on a table.

An important early step in bringing our woolly mammoths to life was creating accurate scale models based on real mammoth fossils. Here, model-maker Doug Watson is consulting references in order to produce a 1/12-scale sculpture of Dima, the baby mammoth. Image: Rick Day © Canadian Museum of Nature.

C. Richard (Dick) Harington, then Chief of the Palaeobiology Division and now one of the Museum’s Research Associates, ensured that—in addition to merely being life-size—the replicas would also be realistically lifelike in appearance. Concept sketches and detailed scale drawings were first created based on fossil remains and descriptions in the scientific literature. Then the model-making began, with the stages shown in these images.

Three images of stages in the construction of a mammoth model.

(left): Making the scale models involved first crafting a miniature skeleton using wire, foam, papier-mâché, and epoxy putty. The internal framework of the male mammoth is shown here. (centre) Working with a museum taxidermist and palaeontologist to estimate muscle placement and mass, Doug Watson then fleshed out the mammoth skeletons using modelling clay. (right) The final result of imitating soft tissue on the male mammoth skeleton, which now awaits surface detailing. Images: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Each of the replicas is based on real fossil material, including the mummified remains of a male woolly mammoth calf whose frozen carcass was found in Siberia. The external features (musculature, fur, trunk shape, etc.) were modelled in consultation with British and Russian palaeontologists. This international ensemble considered both the published scientific literature as well as depictions of woolly mammoths in prehistoric cave art preserved at sites in the Dordogne department of France.

(left) Doug Watson sculpting the fine details of a furry coat on the 1/12-scale models. Image: Rick Day © Canadian Museum of Nature. (right) Scale model of the male mammoth once the surface had been sculpted to provide the appearance of its woolly pelage. From these final forms, a silicone mould was created in order to produce polyester resin casts from which the models could be scaled up to life size. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

A resin cast of the male mammoth.

Polyester resin cast of the male mammoth being outfitted with a three-dimensional grid in preparation for scaling up. The casts were sectioned vertically into slices, each slice being enlarged into a plywood template. Image: Doug Watson © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Three images, one showing plywood templates for a life-size version of the mammoth, and the others showing people adding styrofoam and sculpting the plaster of the mammoth model.

(left) Plywood templates being assembled for the life-size version of the male mammoth. Once all the templates were in place, they were bonded together and covered over with styrofoam. (middle) Doug Watson (on ladder) and Grant Laturnus shapes the styrofoam coating of the core of the life-size male mammoth. (right) The last stage of working with the foam-coated cores was providing an additional covering of drywall compound. Here, Doug Watson (on scaffolding) and Sandra Taylor are sculpting fur details into the plaster. Once completed, these full-scale models served as the basis for making moulds for producing the final replicas. Images: © Canadian Museum of Nature.

Creating such accurate replicas was a significant undertaking at the time, and represented a major technical accomplishment which had not been attempted before in Canada.

Two images of the male and female woolly mammoth sculptures.

(left) The attention to detail can be seen in the completed version of the male mammoth, which was modelled on the skeletal remains of several mammoths found in Alaska. Ron Séguin, the taxidermist and artist who had supervised the phase involving the creation of the life-size models, continues to do touch-ups on them as necessary. (right) The wind-blown fur and broken tusk of the female mammoth add a sense of motion and realism. This sculpture is based on the nearly complete skeleton of a mammoth found in 1967 along the Whitestone River in the Yukon by museum palaeontologist C. Richard Harington. The fossil skull displayed a snapped right tusk, likely due to the animal having attempted to lift a heavy object. Images: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature

Sculpture of the baby mammoth, and the real remains on display in Russia.

(left) The mammoth calf was sculpted to match the details of the mummy of a frozen baby mammoth found in 1977 on the banks of a tributary of the Kolyma River in Siberia. Nicknamed Dima, the carcass represents a young male, approximately 8-months old when he died. Image: Scott Rufolo © Canadian Museum of Nature. The remains of Dima on display in the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg. Image: Andrew Butko © Andrew Butko (CC BY 3.0)

With efforts underway to recreate the mammoth steppe on a large scale in Russia, and discussion within the scientific community concerning the feasibility of cloning a woolly mammoth using the genetic material preserved in the frozen tissues of Arctic mammoth mummies, it may one day be possible to experience woolly mammoths and their habitat in a very direct way.  Until then, our replicas will continue to provide the experience on a smaller scale to museum visitors and additional generations of residents of the National Capital Region.

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