Why Did the Woolly Mammoth Go Extinct?

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Three depictions of mammoths are shown.  They are large, elephant like creatures covered in fur and have long tusks. Photo a shows a painting of mammoths walking in the snow. Photo b shows a stuffed mammoth sitting in a museum display case. Photo c shows a mummified baby mammoth, also in a display case. Photo (b) shows a stuffed mammoth sitting in a museum display case. Photo (c) shows a mummified baby mammoth, also in a display case.
The three photos include: (a) 1916 mural of a mammoth herd from the American Museum of Natural History, (b) the only stuffed mammoth in the world, from the Museum of Zoology located in St. Petersburg, Russia, and (c) a one-month-old baby mammoth, named Lyuba, discovered in Siberia in 2007. (credit a: modification of work by Charles R. Knight; credit b: modification of work by “Tanapon”/Flickr; credit c: modification of work by Matt Howry)

OpenStax Biology 2e

It’s easy to get lost in the discussion about why dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago. Was it due to a meteor slamming into Earth near the coast of modern-day Mexico, or was it from some long-term weather cycle that is not yet understood? Scientists are continually exploring these and other theories.

Woolly mammoths began to go extinct much more recently, when they shared the Earth with humans who were no different anatomically than humans today. Mammoths survived in isolated island populations as recently as 1700 BC. We know a lot about these animals from carcasses found frozen in the ice of Siberia and other regions of the north. Scientists have sequenced at least 50 percent of its genome and believe mammoths are between 98 and 99 percent identical to modern elephants.

It is commonly thought that climate change and human hunting led to their extinction. A 2008 study estimated that climate change reduced the mammoth’s range from 3,000,000 square miles 42,000 years ago to 310,000 square miles 6,000 years ago. It is also well documented that humans hunted these animals. A 2012 study showed that no single factor was exclusively responsible for the extinction of these magnificent creatures. In addition to human hunting, climate change, and reduction of habitat, these scientists demonstrated another important factor in the mammoth’s extinction was the migration of humans across the Bering Strait to North America during the last ice age 20,000 years ago.

The maintenance of stable populations was and is very complex, with many interacting factors determining the outcome. It is important to remember that humans are also part of nature. We once contributed to a species’ decline using only primitive hunting technology.

Source:

Clark, M., Douglas, M., Choi, J. Biology 2e. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/biology-2e


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