The woolly mammoth was once widespread across much of the northern hemisphere. Why did the mammoth go extinct?
The warming climate after the most recent Ice Age was the main reason for the extinction of the woolly mammoth. As the population decreased, it also became a target for human hunters and later suffered the effects of inbreeding. It died out completely about 4,000 years ago.
For more on the woolly mammoth and how it went extinct, read on.
The woolly mammoth is one of the most recognizable animals of the prehistoric world, and one that went extinct remarkably recently. Evolving from the ancestors of modern elephants, the predecessors of the woolly mammoth departed Africa and spread around the world.
In time, the woolly mammoth came to inhabit much of Europe, Asia, and parts of North America. They adapted perfectly to the challenges of the Ice Age, with layers of thick hair that provided insulation, long tusks that could dig through snow to the grass below, and blood that reduced the possibility of freezing.
Unfortunately, the mammoth’s adaptations to the frozen climate of the Ice Age were likely a major part of the species’ downfall. Evidence shows that the woolly mammoth suffered a sudden and sharp decrease in population approximately 10,000 years ago.
This decrease coincides with the end of the most recent Ice Age. The Earth’s climate warmed rapidly, resulting in the mammoth’s icy habitat shrinking. Within a few thousand years, it is believed that the woolly mammoth habitat had shrunk by as much as 90 percent.
A warming climate presented other issues for the mammoth. Even if they could survive in a warmer climate, they faced more competition for food from animals that previously couldn’t inhabit the same territory.
Humans were also a likely contributor to the extinction of the woolly mammoth. A warming climate affected mammoths negatively and also encouraged the spread of humans, who found it far easier to survive than they had during the Ice Age.
As mammoth herds shrank, they became a more appealing target for human hunters. Hunting mammoths was a dangerous proposition, but one that offered significant rewards to anybody who was successful. Mammoths were a source of meat, ivory, and very useful, warm furs.
As the climate warmed, lakes and other water holes were reduced in size or dried up completely. This is considered the likeliest reason for the drastic reduction in the mammoth population.
The remaining mammoths would have congregated around the remaining water holes, causing damage to the surrounding environment. This, in turn, contaminated the water, reducing the available freshwater even further and accelerating the decline of the species.
Though the mammoth population quickly became smaller about 10,000 years ago, groups of woolly mammoths survived for thousands of years past this point. As the ice retreated north, so did the mammoths, making their way into the Arctic Circle.
Mammoths were likely strong swimmers and the last woolly mammoth herds became isolated on islands off the coasts of Russia and Alaska. These herds provided an obvious target for human hunters as hunting techniques and equipment improved.
Though humans contributed to the extinction of the woolly mammoth and might have been responsible for the deaths of the final members of the species, it might also have been inevitable.
As mammoths migrated onto islands, they became ever more isolated from each other. The herds would have had far fewer mammoths than during the prime of the species, leading to a lack of genetic diversity.
DNA samples that were taken from frozen mammoths on these islands show signs that the species was beginning to suffer the effects of inbreeding. Without adding any fresh DNA, this would have continued until the species was in a state of full genetic meltdown.
In this sense, by the time the final mammoths made their new homes on frozen islands, the species had likely passed the point of no return. The last mammoths are believed to have lived on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Russia.
The mammoths of Wrangel Island died out completely about 4,000 years ago. This means that there were still living woolly mammoths while the pyramids were being built in ancient Egypt.
For now, the woolly mammoth is extinct, but scientists have long discussed the possibility of reviving the species via cloning techniques. Sadly, it seems that the woolly mammoth was simply incompatible with the effects of natural global warming.