Mammoth discovery

Prehistoric animals should have survived for 4,000 more years

“Humans were a crucial and chronic driver of population declines of woolly mammoths,” says Damien Fordham from the University of Adelaide’s Environment Institute.

His research, as a member of an international team of scientists led by researchers from the University of Adelaide and University of Copenhagen, debunks the popular theory that a warming climate critically reduced mammoth populations, leaving so few that humans merely picked off the last survivors at the end.

“Until now, it has been difficult to disentangle the exact roles that climate warming and human hunting had on extinction,” said Associate Professor Fordham.

While scientists knew humans exploited woolly mammoths for meat, skins, bones, and ivory, the new research finds that people were essential in the timing and location of the mammoths’ extinction.

“Using computer models, fossils and ancient DNA we have identified the very mechanisms and threats that were integral in the initial decline and, later, extinction of the woolly mammoth,” Associate Professor Fordham says.

The researchers point out that pathways to extinction start long before the death of the species’ last individual. They found that the seeds of the mammoth’s fate were probably sealed 20,000 years or more before their ultimate demise.

“We reconstructed the whole extinction pathway over a period of 21,000 years in Eurasia – all of Europe, Asia, Russia, Pakistan, Mongolia – a really big chunk of the Earth,” Associate Professor Fordham says.

However, changes in the distribution of woolly mammoths from fossils and ancient DNA suggest that, in some regions, people hastened the mammoths’ extinction by up to 4,000 years.

When humans were taken out of the simulations entirely, the mammoths hung on for longer.

“In some places they may have been able to hold on in the future for much, much longer and potentially closer to the present day… in pockets of northern Siberia where they could take refuge.”