The last woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean; they died out 4,000 years ago within a very short time. An international research team from the Universities of Helsinki and Tübingen and the Russian Academy of Sciences has now reconstructed the scenario that could have led to the mammoths’ extinction. The researchers believe a combination of isolated habitat and extreme weather events, and even the spread of prehistoric man may have sealed the ancient giants’ fate.
The last woolly mammoths to walk the Earth were so wracked with genetic disease that they lost their sense of smell, shunned company, and had a strange shiny coat. That’s the verdict of scientists who have analyzed ancient DNA of the extinct animals for mutations. The studies suggest the last mammoths died out after their DNA became riddled with errors. The knowledge could inform conservation efforts for living animals.
There are fewer than 100 Asiatic cheetahs left in the wild, while the remaining mountain gorilla population is estimated at about 300. The numbers are similar to those of the last woolly mammoths living on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean around 4,000 years ago.
GENETICISTS HAVE SKETCHED out the woolly mammoth’s family tree using ancient DNA found preserved in Siberia. The extinct beasts are more closely related to Asian elephants than to African elephants, the researchers found, and the three species diverged within a surprisingly short period of time. Michael Hofreiter of the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, and his colleagues used bone fragments to reconstruct the mitochondrial genome of the mammoth. Mitochondrial DNA is passed from mother to offspring, which makes it useful for tracing the lineage of a species. The DNA revealed that woolly mammoths had more genetic similarities to modern Asian elephants than to the African species, though not by much, Hofreiter’s team reports. The DNA also showed that elephant species split from each other more quickly than had been thought.
For years, scientists have pondered over the question of how cavemen killed six-ton, 3-metre-tall mammoths. Some speculated they were killed after being chased into pits or towards cliffs which they would then fall off, while others theorized the hunters focused on weaker or sick animals. But now a fragment from a 25,000-year-old flint arrowhead discovered in the remains of a mammoth bone in the southern Polish city of Kraków has brought the speculation and guesswork to a close. Dr. Piotr Wojtal from the Institute of Systematics and Evolution of Animals PAS in Kraków told PAP: ”We finally have a smoking gun, the first direct evidence of how these animals were hunted.”
“From among tens of thousands of bones, during a detailed analysis of the remains, I came across a damaged mammoth rib. It turned out that a fragment of a flint arrowhead was stuck in it. This is the first such find from the Ice Age in Europe!” The tiny chip of flint found embedded inside the rib of the mammoth bone proves that our Ice Age ancestors were, in fact, hunting mammoths with rudimentary but effective spears.
“The spear was certainly thrown at the mammoth from a distance, as evidenced by the force with which it stuck into an animal – the blade had to pierce two centimeters of thick skin and an eight-centimeter layer of fat to finally reach the bone,” Dr Wojtal commented. According to the Prehistoric expert, similar finds from the Paleolithic period are very rare. Flint blades embedded in bones have only been discovered in the case of animals such as bears.
The blade fragment found in the bone is only 7 millimeters long and scientists believe that it is a flint tip broken off at the moment of being driven into the body of the mammoth. As for the mammoth in question, scientists believe that the wound to the rib was enough to kill the animal.
Most likely the ambush involved a team of hunters, one of which would have delivered the fatal blow by striking the animal in a more vulnerable place, “probably directly into soft tissues and one of the organs,” Dr Wojtal added. The discovery finally brought together nearly two decades of research and analysis on the remains of 110 mammoths excavated from the city’s Kościuszko Mound.
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