A kid playing with the new Lego City set about Arctic exploration might think that scientists excavate mammoths and saber-toothed cats out of ice cubes using enormous saws, ice crawling machines with huge claws, and four propeller choppers. The reality, unfortunately, is not nearly as sci-fi, according to experts.
“The real version is a lot dirtier, murkier, a lot more kind of like a home-improvement kit you got out of the back door to get the job done,” says Victoria Herridge, a paleobiologist and scientific associate at the Natural History Museum in London. “The animals themselves would be more like a zombie version of a mammoth as opposed to a pristine one.”
The new Lego City set is coming out on August 1st, and it features an Arctic exploration base equipped with snowmobiles, giant trucks with cranes and spinning saws, a supply skiplane and helicopter, as well as ice corers, laptops, and cameras. When Mark Carnall, the collections manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History, first saw the images of the set, he tweeted that he wasn’t “too sure on the veracity of the scientific equipment.”
“Your average paleontologist who works on permafrost on things like mammoths and sabertooths would be very envious with the range of gear,” Carnall tells The Verge.
Researchers excavating specimens out of the permafrost, or frozen ground, in the Arctic make do with much more down to Earth tools. Instead of using trucks with enormous ice saws, they resort to pickaxes and shovels to cut through the ice or ground, says Jan Freedman, curator of natural history at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery in the UK. Instead of using helicopters or giant trucks to take carcasses from the field to the lab, they use “sleighs pulled along by a jeep, or often pulled by Huskies,” Freedman writes in an email to The Verge.
“The snow mobiles are the only thing close to reality,” he says. Helicopters are sometimes used to carry very large specimens, but that happens rarely, only if the scientists are able to secure a lot of funding through grants. And sadly, “not with helicopters with four propellers!” Freedman adds. (We emailed Lego to ask what the company considers when creating sets that represent scientists and their work, and we’ll update the story if we hear back.)
Herridge points to something else that’s inaccurate: the amazingly preserved ice age animals encased in ice. In the Lego set, the mammoth and saber-toothed cat look alive. Their eyes are open! But “no one has actually found an entirely preserved, perfectly pristine mammoth carcass,” she tells The Verge. In reality, specimens found in the thawing permafrost are... less cute. They definitely show signs of decay, says Herridge, who performed an autopsy on a 40,000-year-old mammoth called Buttercup that was found on Maly Lyakhovsky Island in northern Siberia.
That mammoth had died when she got trapped in a bog, so anything that was above the mud line was scavenged by wolves and other animals, but anything below was preserved — like her legs, liver, and stomach, Herridge says. “It was perfect, almost as if she died last week,” she says. “It was covered in beautiful hair that you could stroke and it was soft.”
Unlike the Lego set, these specimens aren’t excavated out of ice cubes either, Herridge says. The permafrost is like a vast expanse of frozen ground and soil, but in the summer, it thaws. In the area of Belaya Gora, in northeastern Siberia, locals use high-power water hoses to dig through the ground in search of mammoths and other ice age animals. (A big pair of mammoth tusks can sell for $50,000 or even $100,000, she says.) “You wouldn’t be in the ice” and “straddling crevasses,” Herridge says. “Actually, you’re talking about melting mud.” And then there’s the smell: mammoth carcasses reek of rotten meat, she says.
Despite the criticism, Herridge, Carnall, and Freedman are all excited that Lego is featuring ice age animals and inspiring kids about science. “I think it’s brilliant. To me, it’s clearly futuristic and clearly not supposed to be a realistic thing,” Herridge says. “I do love the idea that people have embraced the notion of this permafrost world and wonders that are there to be discovered.” Carnall says he hoped that the set had included less-popular ice age animals: though mammoths and saber-toothed cats are the usual suspects, because of blockbuster movies like Ice Age, the Earth was also populated by early horses, hyenas, deer, and cave bears.
There’s one more thing he wished the Lego set included, in order to be more realistic: “a chiller full of beer for the end of a really hard day.”