The mammoth, a large mastodon that lived during the ice age, is probably one of the most popular and charismatic animals that have become extinct. Perhaps that is why today there is a team of Harvard researchers who are trying, by crossing their DNA with that of Asian elephants, to bring this species back to life. But what is it that led this spice to extinction? For decades it was taken for granted that human hunting was the cause of its disappearance, however, now we can say that it was not the main one.
Why the mammoths became extinct
Until relatively recently, humans were blamed for the disappearance of mammoths, basically due to the intensive hunting of these animals. However, in recent years and, above all, once the DNA of this extinct animal could be deciphered, other factors have been found that were much more important in the disappearance of the mammoths :
The results of the latest studies on the extinction of mammoths reveal that climate change was the main cause of the disappearance of this species. These changes in the climate caused other changes in the vegetation. The fact is that during the ice age, the cold and dry conditions that existed, as well as the low concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, prevented many trees. This left plenty of space for huge expanses of grass to grow, perfect for large herbivores, such as mammoths, to eat as they pleased. As the climate became more humid and temperate, and as the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased, the trees grew where there used to be pasture areas, reducing the amount of food the mammoths eat and, as a consequence, reducing the numbers. of specimens.
Until relatively recently it was believed that hunting was the main and almost the only reason why mammoths became extinct. The reality is that, indeed, this may be one of the factors that caused the individuals of this species to decline , but it was neither the only one nor, surely, the main one.
We have already explained the importance of climate and vegetation change, and it was precisely this change that caused only a few populations of mammoths that survived in different isolated areas to survive. It was not until 3,700 years ago that the last specimen of this species disappeared from the earth. This last colony is that of Wrangel Island , located in the Arctic Ocean in an area not far from Siberia and its disappearance has also been extensively studied, so that today we can already explain the causes of this latest blow that led to the extinction of the mammoths.
Today we are already capable of sequencing DNA, so that it has been possible to compare the genomes of frozen mammoths that lived on the continent 45,000 years ago, in full splendor of this species, with those of individuals that lived 4,000 years ago in Wrangle Island. The results show that during this period of time this small colony was accumulating mutations in the DNA that were harmful . The fact that it was a closed colony and that they could not mate with foreign specimens, caused these mutations to multiply and pass from parents to children, accumulating very quickly. Ultimately, these genetic mutations were to blame for the disappearance of the mammoth on our planet.
The era of the mammoths was during the Pliocene and Pleistocene, a time during which the continents were already located in much the same way as they are today. The climate during that time was that of the Ice Age, with 30% of the earth’s surface covered in snow. That was precisely the perfect habitat for the mammoth. The dryness and coldness led to the deserts being much more extensive and the soil more arid, which made it impossible for forests to grow in much of the world. In contrast, there were large grassy plains , savannas that spanned much of the Eurasian continent.
It is precisely there where most of the mammoths lived, in the area between Eastern Europe, Alaska, Siberia and Yukon , in present-day Canada. In fact, this region was named after the mammoth steppe. However, you may be wondering how it is possible that these large mastodons could only feed on grass, with the ground covered with snow. The reality is that the vegetation at that time was different from what we know today. The rigidity of the climate meant that the plants had to conserve a lot of carbohydrates and fibers, which made them highly nutritious, thus being perfect for the mammoth’s diet.
We have said that the great age of mammoths was between the Pleistocene and Pliocene, but what does that mean? Here we explain chronologically when the mammoths lived :
- It makes 6 million years : in Africa evolve what will be the ancestors of the mammoth.
- It makes 3 million years : these ancestors move to North Africa, Asia and Europe.
- It makes 1.7 million years : in China steppe mammoths appear and spread throughout the hemisphere.
- 700,000 years ago : Woolly mammoths appeared in Siberia, capable of living in freezing climates.
- 200,000 years ago : European steppe mammoths become extinct.
- 14,000 years ago : after the ice age, the evolution of mammoths is halted.
- 10,000 years ago : the last colonies of continental mammoths become extinct
- 4,000 years ago : the species became extinct with the last specimens from Wrangle Island.