Were woolly mammoths driven to extinction because it was TOO WET? Melting icebergs wiped out the grass, flowers and plants – the animals’ only food source – and led to their demise, study claims 

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  • Experts led by the University of Cambridge analyzed 535 Arctic soil samples
  • They extracted DNA from ancient plants and animals, including mammoths
  • From this, they were able to show that the giant lives longer than thought.
  • In fact, giant animals co-existed with humans for thousands of years
  • This implies that humanity did not put them to death as has been argued
  • Instead, their demise appears to be linked to the loss of their environment.

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Woolly mammoths may have been driven to extinction by human hunting, but as a result of extreme wetting of the climate, a new study proposes.

Experts from the University of Cambridge argued that the melting of icebergs caused a rapid change in the climate on which the mammoths depend.

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Researchers found DNA collected from plant and animal remains in soil samples collected at 535 Arctic sites known for mammoth fossils.

Key to the study was a new genetic analysis technique that has also recently been used to track the spread of COVID-19 by looking at human waste in sewer systems.

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This meant that the team did not rely on bone or tooth samples to reconstruct an ancient DNA profile – but could use deposits such as feces, skin cells and urine.

From this, they were able to see how not only the mammoths but also the other animals and plants that lived with them changed over about 50,000 years.

The team found that woolly mammoths generally lived longer than previously thought – some remaining in mainland Siberia as far back as 3,900 years ago.

(Previously, it was thought that only isolated populations survived until that time in places such as Siberia’s St. Paul’s Island and Alaska’s Wrangel Island.)

This means that they co-existed with humans for thousands of years, and therefore hunting was unlikely to have played a significant role in their demise.

Instead, their loss appears to coincide with the eventual shift from a ‘mammoth steppe’ environment to peatlands, which took away the mammoth animal’s food sources.

The woolly mammoth (pictured in this artist’s impression) may have been driven to extinction by human hunting, but as a result of the climate becoming too wetter, a new study has proposed

Experts from the University of Cambridge argued that the melting of icebergs caused a rapid change in the climate on which the mammoths depended.  Image: A woolly giant tooth seen resting on the banks of the Logata River in present-day Russia

Experts from the University of Cambridge argued that the melting of icebergs caused a rapid change in the climate on which the mammoths depend. Image: A woolly giant tooth seen resting on the banks of the Logata River in present-day Russia

‘Mammoth Steppe’

Based on their findings, the team concluded that the steppe environment in which the woolly mammoth lived – along with other megafauna such as bison and woolly rhinoceros – was quite unique.

Despite being cold, the steppe was home to a variety of plants that the monsters would have feasted on—including grasses, flowers, and shrubs.

Experts believe that the mammals probably used their teeth to clear snow, and their trunks for juggling difficult vegetation.

Humans also lived with woolly mammoths for thousands of years and their remains are used to produce shawls, harpoons, and even bone-based flutes.

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‘Scientists have argued for 100 years why mammoths became extinct,’ explained paper author and evolutionary geneticist Eske Willerslev from St John’s College, University of Cambridge.

‘Humans have been blamed because animals survived millions of years without climate change, but they didn’t last long when they lived alongside humans and we are accused of hunting them.

‘We were finally able to prove that the problem was not just climate change, but that its speed was the final nail in the coffin.

‘When the landscape changed dramatically and their food became scarce, they weren’t able to adapt quickly enough.

‘As the climate warmed, trees and wetland plants took over and replaced the habitat of the vast grasslands.

‘And we must remember that there were many more animals around that were easier to hunt than a giant woolly mammoth – they could grow to the height of a double-decker bus!’

“The most recent ice age – called the Pleistocene – ended 12,000 years ago when glaciers began to melt and the range of mammoth herds reduced,” said paper author and Cambridge zoologist Yucheng Wang.

‘It was thought that mammoths began to go extinct then, but we also found that they survived beyond ice ages in various regions of the Arctic and into the Holocene, the time we are currently living in – far more than scientists thought Tall.

‘We zoomed in on the intricate details of environmental DNA and mapped the dispersal of the populations of these mammals,’ he explained.

He added, “This analysis reveals how the range of mammoths got smaller and smaller and their genetic diversity.” [got] Smaller and smaller too, making it even more difficult for them to survive.

Researchers found DNA collected from plant and animal remains in soil samples collected at 535 Arctic sites known for mammoth fossils.  Pictured: Modern arctic landscape

From this, they were able to see how not only the mammoths but also the other animals and plants that lived with them changed over about 50,000 years.  Pictured: Modern arctic landscape

Researchers found DNA collected from plant and animal remains in soil samples collected at 535 Arctic sites known for mammoth fossils. From this, they were able to see how not only the mammoths but also the other animals and plants that lived with them changed over about 50,000 years. Pictured: Modern arctic landscape

“When the climate became wetter and the snow began to melt, lakes, rivers and swamps were formed,” Dr Wang added.

‘The ecosystem changed and the biomass of vegetation decreased and the mammoth herd would not be able to sustain.

‘We have shown that climate change, particularly rainfall, directly induces changes in vegetation – based on our model humans had no effect on them.’

Professor Willerslev said,

“This is a hard lesson in history and shows how unpredictable climate change is – once something is lost, there is no going back,” Professor Willerslev said. Pictured, a…

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