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The last woolly mammoths on Earth died alone, stranded on an island

Published Oct 7th, 2019 2:38PM EDT
woolly mammoth
Image: Carlos Tischler/Shutterstock

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As Earth began to slowly emerge from the last ice age, many of the creatures who had adapted to life on a frigid planet found it hard to survive. Woolly mammoths were one of the casualties of a warming Earth, and it’s believed that they were wiped from the planet around 4,000 years ago.

Now, new research pinpoints the location where the mammoths made their last stand. Cut off from the rest of the world on Wrangel Island, located in the Arctic Ocean, the last remaining population of the mammoths hung on for some 7,000 years before eventually dying out.

As the ice age waned, mammoth populations became incredibly isolated, with distinct groups in places like modern-day Alaska, Siberia, and Wrangel Island. The majority of these groups are assumed to have succumbed to rapidly-changing environmental conditions, but a new paper published in Quaternary Science Reviews suggests the same wasn’t necessarily true for the mammoths on Wrangel Island.

In dating the fossil remains of the creatures the researchers noted no extreme changes in their composition, which is something that was observed in other mammoth populations that lived elsewhere. This suggests that while some mammoth groups were pushed to the brink by a shifting environment, the Wrangel Island mammoths enjoyed a relatively stable climate until the end.

The researchers believe this indicates that the extinction of the mammoths in this region was due to short-term changes in weather. Freezing rain could have prevented the animals from feeding on ground foliage, and if the mammoths didn’t have the fat reserves to sustain them they may have met a swift end in a very short period of time., even if the overall climate remained stable.

“We think this reflects the tendency of Siberian mammoths to rely on their reserves of fat to survive through the extremely harsh ice age winters, while Wrangel mammoths, living in milder conditions, simply didn’t need to,” Dr. Laura Arppe, lead author of the research, said in a statement.

This would make sense, but the scientists aren’t counting out the possibility that humans played a role in the downfall of the Wrangel Island mammoths. While there is little evidence to show that early humans hunted the mammoths on the island, a population of early hunters may have seen the mammoths as easy pickings.

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