Ancient Behemoth’s Steps Charted Through Stable Isotope Analysis
A remarkable new study published in Science Advances has retraced the steps of a female woolly mammoth over the last 33 years of her life, revealing an epic 600-mile trek from the interior of Alaska to the Arctic coast.
Using stable isotope analysis of sequential growth segments along the 14,000 year old tusk, researchers were able to reconstruct the mammoth’s movements in incredible detail. “That’s a huge amount of movement for a single mammoth,” said lead author Matthew Wooller from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It likely traveled in herds and faced immense challenges along the way.”
33 Year Odyssey Reads Like Archaeological Page-Turner
The tusk tells a riveting tale of this woolly giant, revealing how she moved from interior Alaska northward to the coast at a time when Pleistocene climate was growing warmer and drier. For years she wandered the Yukon Flats basin before finally trekking north, perhaps in search of greener pastures.
“She covered some 600 miles in her lifetime, walking over 30 miles a year on average,” said Wooller. “Quite an impressive feat considering how massive these animals were.”
Woolly Mammoth Size and Weight
|10-14 feet at shoulder
|16 feet long
At times the mammoth stopped at favored spots, perhaps slowing when she had young calves. As climate shifted, she pushed ever northward, finally reaching the Arctic coast on Alaska’s North Slope. Tragically, some 14,000 years ago, her arduous journey ended violently at the hands of human hunters at a site called Rcroft in northern Alaska.
“She was butchered and her tusks were stashed in the sediment,” said one researcher. Still, her epic travels live on, immortalized in the chemistry of her massive tusks.
Overlapping Habitats With Ancient Humans
The study provides unique insights into interactions between Pleistocene megafauna like the woolly mammoth and early human settlers in Alaska.
“We found chemical signals that are directly linked to sustained occupations over periods of time,” said Wooller, suggesting humans overlapped with mammoths for thousands of years. Ancient humans likely tracked and hunted the mighty beasts, indicated by spear points and cut marks found on mammoth bones at habitation sites.
“We see multiple signals of humans taking proboscideans over a period of at least 2,000 years,” said another scientist. “Our data bridges the gap between continental-scale patterns and human-mammoth interactions at specific sites.”
The new research helps rewrite our understanding of mammoths during the Pleistocene, revealing they were more mobile than previously thought. The tusk findings also underscore the impacts of a changing climate on mammoths while highlighting the long history of human big-game hunting.
Driven By Climate Change and Human Pressures
It’s clear a combination of factors drove woolly mammoths to extinction including climate change and human encroachment. Mammoths faced growing environmental pressures as the Pleistocene gave way to a warmer Holocene period. Their suitable habitat drastically declined yet they maintained an impressive ability to adapt and shift their range.
Possible Causes of Woolly Extinction
- Global warming altering habitat
- Humans competing for resources
- Overhunting by humans
- Rapid climate shifts
- Genetic bottlenecks
But the dual challenges of climate change and human hunting likely proved too much. The new tusk evidence reveals overlapping habitats of people and mammoths, suggesting more sustained hunting pressure. Additionally, genetic studies show serious inbreeding within mammoth populations diminished genetic diversity.
While climate impacted their movements, the coup de grâce for the mighty beasts may have come from human spear points. Still, the mammoth lived on in human culture and imagination, as clearly evidenced by vivid Paleolithic cave paintings.
Will We Ever See Their Return?
Woolly mammoth remains have been found everywhere from Siberia to Spain to Mexico, revealing how far their range once extended. While debate continues around the exact cause of their mass extinction, clearly humans played a role in their demise.
But we may one day get a second chance to coexist with these Pleistocene powerhouses. Advances in ancient DNA studies and genetic engineering have opened up the possibility of mammoth “de-extinction.” Harvard’s Woolly Mammoth Revival project seeks to introduce mammoth genes into Asian elephant embryos, bringing a version of the extinct species back to life.
While technical hurdles remain, the ever-unfolding story of this magnificent giant and its icy realm could soon feature a new chapter. Using the lessons of the past, perhaps humans can this time live in harmony with the woolly behemoth should it walk the Earth again.
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