Scientists Discovered Evidence That Exposes An Ancient Lie About Woolly Mammoths

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Woolly mammoths haven’t roamed the earth for thousands of years, and yet we have no trouble envisioning the massive, hairy beasts. But this well-known species may not actually have lived in the way in which we once thought they did. That’s right: apparently, scientists have uncovered evidence that disproves what was long considered a truth about these ancient animals. And in doing so, the experts may have shed new light on their evolution.

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But if woolly mammoths have been extinct for so long, how do we know so much about them? Well, as it happens, frigid temperatures preserved the carcasses of certain members of the species, with these sets of remains then being uncovered in more recent times. Owing to these remnants, then, we know what woolly mammoths look like and what they ate. We even know how prehistoric humans interacted with the giant mammals from cave paintings.

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But, of course, most woolly mammoths died out between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago – so, before human civilization began. To put that passage of time into perspective, the Ancient Egyptians built their iconic Great Pyramid of Giza more than 4,000 years ago.

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Yet although woolly mammoths are long gone, they do have some relatives roaming the earth to this day; the Asian elephant in particular remains the closest living species to the ancient tusked beast. But it wasn’t through these pachyderms that scientists made their new discovery. Instead, researchers unlocked a secret about this prehistoric creatures through remains from a remote island – and the revelation in question would go on to change the animals’ story completely.

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There are certain other things that we do know about woolly mammoths, however, and these largely remain unchanged. For starters, the beasts loomed tall over the icy plains on which they lived. Woolly mammoths are thought to have once inhabited an extra-large stretch of the Earth, too – from northern Eurasia to North America.

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It’s said, moreover, that woolly mammoths had similar measurements to modern-day African elephants. Males’ shoulders measured up to 11.2 feet in height and weighed in at 6.6 tons. Females stood slightly smaller, however, with shoulder heights of between 8.5 and 9.5 feet and weights of around 4.4 tons. And, naturally, babies were pretty hefty, too, with each entering the world at around 200 pounds – a similar weight to elephant calves today.

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Regardless of woolly mammoths’ age, size or gender, though, fur covered them from head to toe, with these under and outer coats helping keep the mammals extra warm in their Ice Age surrounds. They also had much shorter ears than elephants do, and this made them less susceptible to frostbite and heat loss.

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Perhaps the most recognizable feature of the woolly mammoths, meanwhile, were their curved tusks. The beasts used these massive protuberances to defend themselves against pack-hunting predators such as cave hyenas, wolves and large wild cats; they also came in handy to attract mates and ward off rival herd members.

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And much like their elephant descendants, woolly mammoths lived extremely social lives, largely staying in family groups that were led by their female members. They also may have had combined families to create extra-large herds – a practice that today’s elephants continue to engage in. Naturally, the openness of their habitat would have encouraged them to join up and wander together.

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So, what did the herds do all day? Well, much of the time would be spent looking for food and eating it. Each woolly mammoth would likely have eaten close to 400 pounds of sustenance on a daily basis, with this requiring them to spend about 20 hours a day foraging. The mammals typically consumed grasses and sedges, although they are also known to have eaten shrubs, moss, herbaceous plants and tree parts.

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The woolly mammoths’ trunks were very helpful in foraging, too, as each had a finger-like adaptation at the tip that made it easier for them to dig up even the shortest blades of Ice Age grass. The beasts could also pick up larger tufts of turf as well as flowers, buds and leaves from trees and shrubs. By contrast, today’s elephants are less exacting; instead, they simply wrap their trunks around long savannah grass and pull it.

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But in spite of their family-centric nature and plant-based diets, woolly mammoths didn’t lead fully peaceful existences. After all, they had a slew of predators to deal with during their time on Earth. Young or otherwise weakened mammoths had to worry about facing attacks from saber-tooth cats, for example.

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The same sick or small woolly mammoths would also be susceptible to attack by pack predators such as the aforementioned wolves and hyenas. Then, about 40,000 years ago, a new threat made its way into the mammoths’ extensive habitat: human beings. At around that time, mankind trekked from Africa and into Europe, where it discovered the giant, hairy creatures.

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Before the evolution of humans, however, Neanderthals had lived alongside the woolly mammoth. Mankind’s ancestors repurposed the mammoths’ bones to fashion tools and sturdy building materials. They also honored these creatures by adding them into their cave drawings and paintings – some of which endure today.

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But the relationship between humans and mammoths would eventually become an exploitative one – down in part to that need for bones to build homes. Some Ice Age structures remain standing in the present day, and they show just how much of the mammoth was required to construct an suitable dwelling.

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First, these ancient humans would gather the woolly mammoths’ largest bones and use them to outline a home’s foundation. They then used tusks to mark the entryway to the dwelling and skins to enclose everything. And although some of the animals used in this process had been long dead, others were killed just for building purposes.

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Woolly mammoths also faced exploitation for their ivory, as humans utilized the cream-colored material for carving artworks and weapons. The sheer size of the mammoths’ tusks meant, however, that they had to be chiseled and split into smaller pieces prior to any further use.

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And, of course, humans relied on woolly mammoths for food, with some of the remnants of the massive mammals showing how they had once been butchered by stone tools. One set of remains even had a spear head lodged into its shoulder thousands of years later – showing as a result how forcefully a human had killed that creature.

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In addition, cave paintings reveal that humans used trapping pits to capture woolly mammoths. And while experts can’t confirm how much prehistoric people relied on sustenance from these beasts, it’s nevertheless believed in some quarters that humans were the driving force behind the species’ extinction. Over-hunting in particular may ultimately have led to the mammals’ demise.

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Not everyone is of the same mind, though, as some scientists claim instead that climate change and subsequent loss of habitat killed off the woolly mammoth. In any case, there’s at least some broad consensus regarding the period when the mammals died off entirely. It’s thought that the majority of woolly mammoths perished during the so-called Quaternary extinction event, which took place about 40,000 years ago.

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Mostly megafaunal species – including many of the most well-known prehistoric creatures – are believed to have become extinct during this period. Along with the woolly mammoth, the woolly rhinoceros, the saber-toothed cat, the giant polar bear and the ground sloth all disappeared.

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Yet modern research has revealed that the woolly mammoth may not have actually disappeared completely during the Quaternary extinction event. Instead, scientists have found evidence that a colony of the creatures actually survived thousands of years beyond that moment.

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Yes, climate change is believed to have inadvertently quarantined a small population of woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island – an expanse that is situated in the Arctic Ocean and bookended by the Chukchi and East Siberian Seas. At the end of the Ice Age, rising temperatures caused water levels to rise to the point that the mammals couldn’t actually leave Wrangel Island for the mainland.

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But this isolation seems to have helped save these last mammoths from sure death; instead, members of their species ended up living in the middle of the Arctic for an additional 7,000 years. Scientists uncovered this information in a study that was intended to measure the isotope makeup of the carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium in bones left behind by the extinct creatures.

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These bones all came from different parts of the mammoths’ habitat: Alaska, the Yukon, Northern Siberia and, of course, Wrangel Island. And the researchers hoped that the study would not only highlight how the mammoths’ diets had changed toward the end of their existence, but also uncover how their environment had changed.

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In the end, then, the bones from the Wrangel Island mammoths presented a completely different story to that of their mainland counterparts. And when the results of the study emerged in 2019, the University of Helsinki’s Dr. Laura Arppe and her colleagues explained why this was. The researchers said, “The results showed that Wrangel Island mammoths’ collagen carbon and nitrogen isotope compositions didn’t shift as the climate warmed up some 10,000 years ago.”

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In fact, the Wrangel Island mammoths’ compositions remained the same until they, too, disappeared – albeit 7,000 years later than the majority of the species. In addition, the specialists claimed, these animals perished “from the midst of stable, favorable living conditions.” It makes sense, then, that mainland mammoths died with much different isotope levels.

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The study’s scientists looked at both mammoths that died in Eastern Europe about 15,000 years ago and Alaskan behemoths that perished 5,600 years ago. And in doing so, they found that, “in both cases, the last representatives of these populations showed significant changes in their isotopic composition. [This indicated] changes in their environment shortly before they became locally extinct.”

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It’s not a mystery, either, as to why the Wrangel Island mammoths thrived while the rest of the population disappeared. You see, the creatures that were isolated to the island began to develop mutations that changed their bodies’ fat metabolism. The latest study revealed, moreover, that the mainland mammoths processed fat and carbohydrates in a different manner than those trapped on the island.

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Mammoths in Siberia, for instance, had to survive harsh, Ice Age winters that meant their lives depended on their bodies’ fat reserves. On Wrangel Island, though, conditions proved to be much milder, and so the animals there had no need to draw on such supplies in order to survive.

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Additionally, woolly mammoths on the island apparently had to deal with the deteriorating quality of their drinking water. In any case, sulfur and strontium were both found to appear in the mammoths’ bones, suggesting that it may have been in their water supplies – perhaps as a result of crumbling bedrock.

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Despite any changes to their environment, however, Wrangel Island mammoths endured. In the study, scientists revealed that this isolated population may have even survived into the Holocene period – so, the epoch in which we currently live. Yes, some of the island’s woolly mammoths may have made it to the present era, thriving in the middle of the Arctic while the ancient Egyptians built their pyramids halfway around the world.

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Furthermore, although the scientists are yet to discover why the Wrangel Island woolly mammoths disappeared after so many thousands of years, they had at least one theory. The researchers proposed that the cause may have been the result of “a short-term crisis, possibly linked to climatic anomalies or/and geochemical factors.”

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It could be the case, too, that Wrangel Island mammoths became extinct in much the same way as that of the mainland population. You see, while the scientists can’t as yet find evidence of humans on the island, they added that such a lack of data should not be used to rule out hunting as the reason why the final mammoths disappeared.

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But as it happens, the Wrangel Island community may not be the last of the woolly mammoths to walk the Earth. Many preserved bodies have been recovered, after all, while an estimated 150 million are still left frozen beneath the Siberian tundra. As a result, then, experts believe that they may have the genetic material necessary to regenerate the species.

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In fact, in March 2019 the journal Scientific Reports published the results of a study that revealed researchers had “woken up” 28,000-year-old woolly mammoth DNA. The team had taken cells from the mummy of a mammoth known as Yuka before injecting the DNA into mouse eggs to see how the prehistoric material would react.

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And, at first, the mammoth’s chromosomes started exhibiting the typical behaviors of cells just before they divide – a promising beginning to the experiment. Somewhat abruptly, though, the DNA stopped moving, with the scientists taking this to mean that Yuka’s genetic code had been damaged over time. After all, it had apparently been frozen in Siberian permafrost for nearly 30,000 years.

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The research team had known that Yuka’s DNA could be impaired, though, and they chose to inject the material into mouse eggs for that reason. It was figured, you see, that any damage to the extinct creature’s genetic code could be repaired by the modern, living cells. And, initially, the mouse eggs did perform this task, but to no avail; ultimately, they could not fix the severely degraded quality of the mammoth DNA.

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Researchers from the study wrote, “The results presented here clearly show us again the de facto impossibility to clone the mammoth by current [nuclear-transfer] technology.” But other experts have thrown their hats in the ring, and they’re relying on different technology to potentially bring this massive mammal back to life. For instance, a team at Harvard hopes to inject woolly mammoth DNA into that of Asian elephants.

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Of course, such projects remain controversial – not least because there is only so much scientific resource out there. And given this fact, some specialists believe that such efforts should be focused instead on modern species – ones that we may yet lose without conservation.

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