- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 10, 2001

When major broadcast networks create "reality" programs, they load them up with potential for tension and conflict, setting players against one another in artificial contests.

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Like those broadcasters, the Discovery Channel has shaped reality with its "Expedition Discovery" series, funding expeditions and showing the results on TV. Unlike those broadcasters, the cable network creates an environment for scientific breakthrough rather than discord.

"Land of the Mammoth," the latest in the series, tracks the work of French explorer Bernard Buigues and his team as he works in the Siberian tundra to understand the life of the woolly mammoth.

The mammoth in question is the Jarkov mammoth (named for the reindeer herder family that found it), which is encased in a large block of ice kept in a cave under Khatanga, Siberia, so it will remain cool until all information that its carcass holds can be uncovered. The discovery of the mammoth and the efforts to bring it to Khatanga were presented in a previous Discovery Channel special.

Some elements are jazzed up for TV. The special uses quite a few computer-generated images to show mammoths making their way across the grassy steppe lands of the Taymyr Peninsula, illustrating the scientists' discoveries rather than simply telling them. The computer images also show the mammoth's death as scientists have re-created it.

These techniques compensate for the fact that viewers will see the actual mammoth mainly as a block of ice with tusks, except for the occasional view of fragments under a microscope.

One nifty sequence shows the various predecessors of the mammoth and the modern-day elephant, their trunks and tusks evolving before the viewers' eyes in a variety of shapes and sizes. The mammoth's journey around the Northern Hemisphere is traced through computer images as well, with mammoths seen walking across a global map.

However, most of the time, we see the careful, painstaking work of the scientific team as its members slowly defrost the Jarkov mammoth, examining its hair, pollen and pathogens; seek out more frozen finds to put their discovery into context; and study such tundra survivors as the arctic fox.

As one scientist, Dr. Alexei Tikhonov of the Russian Academy of Science, described their work in Siberia, "We can see this is a freezer full of remains of extinct animals."

Their work requires them to labor in temperatures around 5 degrees Fahrenheit as they gradually defrost the block of ice to examine every detail of their find while preventing the destruction of scientific evidence.

The special also offers glimpses of today's harsh life on the tundra as the scientists get help from the nomadic Dolgan people, herders whose tiny homes are pulled by reindeer.

"They know every inch of this area by landmarks invisible to the Western eye," narrator Avery Brooks ("Star Trek: Deep Space Nine") explains.

At the documentary's end, the project is still not complete, but the research has uncovered valuable new information.

The Discovery Channel will have children's programs tomorrow morning on similar themes, including "Bonehead Detectives of the Paleoworld" at 9 a.m., to introduce children to paleontology, and "The Ultimate Guide: Elephants" at 11 a.m.

{*}{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Land of the Mammoth"WHERE: Discovery ChannelWHEN: 8 p.m. March 11

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