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Nikolai K. Vereschagin, “The Mammoth Expert,” Dies at Age 99


Prof. Dr. Nikolai Kuzmich Vereschagin, a prominent Russian paleontologist, nationally and internationally known as “The Mammoth Expert” tragically died on October 27, 2008 at the age of 99 years, about three weeks short of his 100th birthday.

Nikolai K. Vereschagin, the grandchild of Nikolai Vasilievich Vereschagin, the most influential dairy expert in Russia in the19th century, and the third cousin of the prominent battle artist Vasilii V. Vereschagin, was born on November 21, 1908 in the small village Petrovka of the Vologda District.  Interestingly, nearby are the sites with the late and latest mammoths in European Russia (Cherepovets vicinity), including the “Zhidikovo Peat bog” site, the “Sheksna River Mouth site” and the “Yagorba River Mouth” site (Dr. Vereschagin consulted on mammoth bone identifications at the Yagorba River mouth site).

Soon after graduation from the Moscow Zootechnical Institute in 1929, while being employed by the Zhitkov Research Institute for Game and Fur-bearer Propagation in 1930-1934, young Nikolai directed introductions of muskrat in the Irtysh River basin, one of the first introductions of the species in the USSR. In 1935 – 1940 Dr. Vereschagin worked for the Zoological Institute, Azerbaijan SSR Academy of Sciences in Baku, Azerbaijan Republic, where he studied modern mammals of the Apsheron Peninsula and game mammals of the Caucasus Mountains. In 1939 he defended his PhD dissertation on nutria biology and acclimatization. In 1949 - 1990 Dr. Vereschagin was employed by the Zoological Institute, USSR Academy of Sciences, St. Petersburg, where he headed the Laboratory of Mammals from 1968 through 1974. During the years 1974 to 1995 he was head of the Fauna’s History Department.

In 1954 Dr. Vereschagin was awarded the Doctor of Science Degree after defending his dissertation “The Mammals of Caucasus. A History of the Evolution of the Fauna” published as a book in Russian in 1959. The book was translated in English in 1967 and instantly became an international scientific bestseller and the main paleontological guide for the region and for comparisons with other paleontological sites worldwide.

Dr. Vereschagin’s late 1940s and 1950s were filled by numerous field seasons and trips to different part of the USSR, lab work, material analyses and publishing a variety of papers on the Pleistocene fauna and mammals of southern Russian Plain, Crimea, Caucasus, the lower Ural River region, Siberia, Kazakhstan and Transbailkalia. His publications included an extensive overview and analyses of the Tamanian Pleistocene fauna, and the first reports on finding moose (1948) and macaque (1957) remains in the Pleistocene of Caucasus.

During the 1960s, Dr. Verescahgin studied systematic and taxonomic positions of modern and extinct cats and bears. He was involved in extensive paleontological work on archeological sites in the Ural Mountains, Western Siberia and Far East (Russian Primorie). This enriched field experience and his personal hunting experience, allowed him to suggest methods for Paleolithic big game procurement.

In the 1970s, Dr. Vereschagin headed paleontological expeditions to the later well-known “Berelekh Mammoth Boneyard” site on the Berelekh River in Yakutia Republic. Here, he and his colleagues collected more than 8,000 bones, belonging to at least 140 woolly mammoth individuals, from sand lenses formed by the River. The rescue expedition was performed just in time: within a few seasons the site was completely washed out by the river.

In the early 1970s Dr. Vereschagin revitalized the Scientific Mammoth Committee of the USSR founded in 1948, and led the organization from 1972 to 1995. With his leadership the Committee organized seven Russian workshops on mammoth and mammoth fauna studies, and the 1st International Mammoth Conference (IMC) that took place in St. Petersburg in 1995. Dr. Vereschagin attended all but the 4th IMC in 2007, having been the Honorary Chair and consistently attracting attention with his presentations.

The 1970s through the 1980s saw Dr. Vereschagin’s research focused on evolution of Pleistocene fauna. He extensively analyzed the morphology of mammoth skeleton and tusks, studied the morphology and ecology of the extinct Pleistocene horse, steppe bison (Bison priscus), and cave lion and published several papers on the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions, which he explained resulted from the combined effects of climate change, hunting and biological/ecological factors.  

Dr. Verescahgin made substantial contributions to science studying skeletons and carcasses of adult and baby mammoths found in Russia. After the sensational discovery of baby mammoth Dima in Eastern Siberia by the local gold-mine worker in 1977, Dr. Vereschagin organized and led a team of international researchers studying the unique specimen, publishing a series of papers followed by the book “The Magadan Mammoth Calf” (in Russian). He also participated in excavations and studies of the Khatanga (1977) and Yuribei (1979) mammoths, and consulted with other researchers on the frozen carcasses of Jarkov (1997) and Yukagir (2002) mammoths from Siberia.

Dr. Vereschagin was involved in studying the mummified body of the baby mammoth Masha (1999) and was consulting the international team of researchers formed for systematic studies of the most complete baby mammoth ever found, Lyuba (2007); both females northern Western Siberia.

He traveled, lectured and participated in many scientific conferences abroad, including France, Yugoslavia, Japan, USA and very recently, Africa (Kenya). He was a member of International Council for Archeozoology and other scientific societies including the honorary memberships in the All-Russian Theriological Society and the Czechoslovakia Zoological Society. Dr. Vereschagin earned many high awards including the “Honorary Scientist of Russia” and the “Honorary Member of the Peter the Great Academy of Science” (1998).

From 1970 to 1982 Dr. Verescahgin was editor of the special paleontological series of the "Proceedings of the Zoological Institute," a yearly volume of papers devoted to Pleistocene paleontology within the former Soviet Union. He was the author of more than 280 scientific papers, popular publications and eight monographs. His publications range from deep analyses of faunas to taxonomical and taphonomical research, and to popular books, as the “Why did Mammoths Become Extinct?” (1979), “The Memoirs of a Paleontologist” (1981) “Zoological Journeys” (1986), “Exterior of the Mammoth” (1999; English version) and “From Muskrat to Mammoth: the Life of a Zoologist” (2002). Just few months ago Dr. Vereschagin finished his last book “My Century. Memoirs and Science Work” (in Russian), which was accepted for publication by the Publisher “7-ya Bukva” in Tver, Russia. It is sad that the author will never see it published. 

Having had a deep interest in the Pleistocene Megafauna and being an experienced field collector through his science career, Dr. Vereschagin had a comprehensive approach in studying paleontological sites he was involved in. When searching for and collecting megafauna remains, he collected insects, plants, birds and fish to build up collections for future generations of scientists. His research, papers and books were powerful, riveting and thought provoking, attracting to him many students from different parts of the USSR. Students learned much from him and his publications. Dr. Vereschagin’s scientific advisor capacity and supervision of 14 PhD and three Doctors of Sciences students was tough and challenging. He significantly contributed to the success of their dissertations and future growth in their science careers.

From his full retirement in 1990 until the very end, Dr. Vereschagin continued a very active life working in his “reserved” office at the Zoological Institute, and at home; publishing papers, attending scientific conferences, consulting the public and scientists, and hunting big game. Dr. Vereschagin was always eager to go to conferences related to his studies. Due to his age he had problems receiving permission from officials to travel abroad, but he continued fighting for every scientific trip and often won.

Through all his life Dr. Vereschagin has been a maverick and brave fighter for his opinion and independent thoughts, and has never hesitated to tell “inconvenient truth” to administrators and officials. He made his life career honestly, without compromising with political authorities. The bright scientist, original thinker, teacher, talented writer, self-taught artist, and passionate game hunter and paleontologist will be sorely missed by all his family, friends and colleagues.
Olga Potapova
Collections Curator/Manager
The Hot Springs Mammoth Site, Inc.
PO BOX 692
1800 HWY 18 BYPASS
tel (605)745-6017 fax (605)745-3038

Dr. Roald L. Potapov
Zoological Museum
Zoological Institute
Russian Academy of Sciences
University emb., 1
199034 St. Petersburg
Russia; museum@zin.ru 

Top photo: Dr. N. Vereschagin sorting out the Pleistocene bison and horse bones collected by the 3rd IMC participants during the field trip to the paleontological sites in vicinity of Dawson, Canada. May 2003. Photo by Olga Potapova.

Bottom photo: From the left: Eddy Clay, Dr. N. Vereschagin, Dr. Larry Agenbroad (The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD), and Clara Clay. 3rd International mammoth Conference field trip, Yukon, Canada, May 2003. Photo by O. Potapova.


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