The must, an annual ordeal that turns male elephants into flowing, aggressive pachyderms, also appears to have affected male mammoths who lived thousands of years ago, according to to new research.
University of Michigan researchers led a team that obtained a male mammoth tusk first discovered by a diamond mining company in Siberia in 2007. From this massive tooth, they will detect ancient levels of testosterone using a new method.
How to detect mammoth testosterone
First, the researchers took a CT scan of the tusk to measure how much it grew each year. Then, while looking through a microscope, they remove half a millimeter of dentin using a robot. Finally, the powder went for analysis.
Rich Aukus, a University of Michigan endocrinologist who usually teaches at the School of Medicine, developed a new technique for this study to extract steroids from tusk powder. He intended to use mass spectrometry, the usual method for determining molecular mass, to look for testosterone.
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“We developed steroid mass spectrometry methods for human blood and saliva samples and used them extensively for clinical research,” he says in press release. “But I never in a million years imagined we’d be using these techniques to study ‘paleoendocrinology.'”
The growing field focuses on the study of ancient hormones.
Mammoths with must
Auchus also analyzed male African elephant dust and found that annual testosterone peaks corresponded to the must, as expected. “We then saw the same patterns in the mammoth,” he says.
Based on the length of the mammoth tusk, the male lived to be about 55 years old and died more than 33,000 years ago in Siberia. During musth, which comes from the Hindu and Urdu word for “intoxicated,” his testosterone levels rose to about 10 times their normal amount.
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When male elephants go through molt, they become erratic and dribble urine on the ground as they go. According to Cincinnati Zoo.
Paleoendocrinology and ancient hormones
But it was dentin, the calcified interior of all teeth, that made the study possible.
“This study establishes dentin as a useful repository for certain hormones and sets the stage for further advances in the burgeoning field of paleoendocrinology,” lead author Michael Cerny said in a press release. “In addition to broad applications in zoology and paleontology, dental hormone records could support medical, forensic, and archaeological research.”
Scientists have already analyzed ancient and modern hair, nails and teeth for hormones, results that some scientists question, according to the release. The authors say they hope “their findings will help change that by demonstrating that records of steroids in teeth can provide meaningful biological information that is sometimes preserved for thousands of years.”