Why did the Mammoths become extinct?

Posted: May 9, 2013 in Natural History
Tags: ,

This was the question posed by Prof Adrian Lister at the Natural History museum in London this afternoon. The evidence suggests that the Mammoth had evolved to live in a particular environment of grassland that existed across the whole of Northern Europe, Northern Russia and Alaska during the last Ice Age.

Mammoth

photo by Paul (http://www.flickr.com/people/w9ned/)

There are two common theories as to why the mammoths became extinct and recent research has shed light on the probability of both. One is that it was as a result of human hunting and that literally they were hunted out of existence. Prof Lister presented evidence from fossils that Mammoths were indeed hunted, but that evidence from both fossil mammoths and from bones found in human habitation suggest that it was not a major item on prehistoric mans menu. The second is that they died out as a result of climate change and subsequent alteration in the environment. Radiocarbon dating of mammoths from around the world has shown that as the world warmed up following the last ice age the range of the mammoth decreased from both east and west until the last specimens (c 5,000 years ago) were only found only islands in the North of Siberia. This decrease in range is very similar to the decrease of sub-ice cap grasslands as tundra encroached from the north and woodland from the south. The islands on which the mammoths survived were remnants of the land bridge between Asia and Alaska which had by this time broken down. It is interesting to note that the date of the last mammoths found coincides with the arrival of humans in those islands.

Prof Lister suggested that although the major decline in mammoths was caused by loss of habitat, human hunting might have played a role once the population became endangered and isolated.

He likened this to the situation which faces it’s relative the Asian elephant today where its range is being reduced by agriculture and human habitation and the remaining population is threatened by poaching.

It seems we do not learn from history.

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