What Woolly Mammoth Extinction Tells Us About Our Rapidly-Changing Future


 Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) in a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain. (Information according to the caption of the same image in Alan Turner (2004) National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) in a late Pleistocene landscape in northern Spain. (Information according to the caption of the same image in Alan Turner (2004) National Geographic Prehistoric Mammals, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Here’s a story that sounds like something out of our own not-too-distant future: Encroaching sea-levels caused by a warming climate triggered the downfall of a population living on a remote island in the Pacific, after they failed to adapt.

By Bryson Masse | MOTHERBOARD

Scientists have been warning about this scenario playing out in the face of climate change. But in this case, we’re talking about the distant past: the final stand of the woolly mammoths on St. Paul Island, Alaska, some 5,600 years ago. The island is famous as a refuge for these animals, which thrived there long after they’d been wiped out elsewhere. Now, a team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University and the University of Alberta has discovered why the iconic megafauna was wiped out, after they didn’t adapt to a changing environment.

Given what’s happening in the world today, there could be some valuable lessons here for us.

Changes that turn out to be catastrophic don’t all happen at the same time

Rising oceans, caused by the thaw after the last Ice Age, were just one of their mounting problems. Fresh water was also disappearing as seawater replaced the mammoths‘ drinking sources. Scientists took core samples from the bottom of lakes on the island, and noticed changing salinity, as well as evidence of increasing ‘turbidity.’ In other words, more and more particles were dissolved in the lakes, which indicated a decline in the quality of available drinking water.

Researchers tracked spore and fungus traces that were commonly found in mammoth dung, and discovered a steady decrease between 9,000 to 5,650 years ago. In other words, less and less poop indicates a shrinking population.

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