Woolly mammoth extinction caused by humans and climate change

By Chelsea Whyte on June 12, 2012 5:40 PM EDT

woolly mammoth
Woolly mammoths faced a slow decline, due in part to humans and in part to climate change (Photo: Library of Science)

It took more than just humans to bring giant woolly mammoths to extinction, researchers say. The perfect storm of climate change, human hunters, and shifting habitats led to their demise, according to a new study in Nature Communications.

Though woolly mammoths roamed Europe, Asia and North America for about 250,000 years, nearly all of them vanished about 10,000 years ago, leading scientists to speculate that humans were to blame for their demise.

"We were interested to know what happened to this species during the climate warming at the end of the last ice age because we were looking for insights into what might happen today due to human-induced climate change," said researcher Glen MacDonald, a geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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He and a team of others analyzed samples from more than 1,300 woolly mammoths, nearly 450 pieces of wood, almost 600 archeological sites and over 600 peatlands, and compiled each data point into the most complete maps created to date of the changes happening thousands of years ago. They were able to map the size and location of woolly mammoths, which led them to believe that in addition to hunting, climate change that affected the giant creatures' habitats also led to their extinction.

"These findings pretty much dispel the idea of any one factor, any one event, as dooming the mammoths," said MacDonald, according to Discovery News.

The map showed that mammoths called the open steppe of Beringia home between 30,000 and 45,000 years ago. That area isn't quite the ice-covered tundra you might picture woolly mammoths living in. And once the most brutally cold part of the ice age took hold - the Last Glacial Maximum - northern mammoth populations started to deteriorate, most likely because the area became too barren to survive.

"There was an old idea that cold glacial conditions like the Last Glacial Maximum were optimal for mammoths," MacDonald said, reports the Huffington Post. "That idea now doesn't really hold water."

Woolly mammoths held out as the climate warmed and they were pushed into coniferous forests that developed, and lived alongside humans for thousands of years. It wasn't just one of these factors, but all of them together that led to the slow decline of the animals.

Not only does this research give a better picture of what may have happened to the woolly mammoth, it could give scientists a glimpse into the future, as climate change acts on the habitats of still-living animals.

"The answer to why woolly mammoths died off sounds a lot like what we expect with future climate warming," said MacDonald, who worked with a team to create the maps. 

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