Woolly Mammoth’s Entire 28-Year Life Has Been Retraced

Researchers have mapped out the entire 28-year life of one woolly mammoth and he certainly made his way around. In fact, he moved around so much that he could have almost walked around the entire planet twice.

Woolly mammoths were very large, measuring about 13 feet in height (4 meters) and weighed approximately 6 tons. They had a thick brown coat that kept them warm, and large curved tusks that may have helped them in battle as well as for digging grass, roots, shrubs, and other plants from beneath the snow. They went extinct approximately 10,000 years ago.

Experts analyzed the 7.9-foot-long (2.4 meters) preserved tusk of a male mammoth that lived in Alaska about 17,000-year-old and they were able to determine that in 28 years, it walked nearly 50,000 miles (80,500 kilometers). For the first time ever, they used a large band saw to slice open a mammoth tusk lengthwise in order to analyze the layers that built up over the years while the animal was alive. To understand this better, tusks hold information about their whereabouts by an element called strontium that the tusks absorb from the different plants that the animal fed on.

The researchers then compared their findings to chemical signatures across Alaska that were previously found in smaller plant-eating mammals that lived during the Ice Age so that they could identify which areas the mammoth lived and ate during his life.

When the mammoth was a baby, he spent the majority of his time in the lower Yukon River basin. He then traveled into the lowlands of Alaska’s interior when he was a juvenile (most likely with a herd) and remained there until he was around 15 years of age when he would have left the herd and traveled to further areas. He spent the last two years of his life in the western part of Alaska’s Brooks Range at a higher altitude. Based on a larger amount of nitrogen isotopes found in the tusks, the mammoth may have starved prior to his death, perhaps due to unusually hard winter months. (Pictures of the mammoth tusk can be seen here.)

In an interview with Live Science, Matthew Wooller, who is the director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and the Water and Environmental Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) as well as a professor at the UAF College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences, stated, “Until this point, we didn’t have this level of detail about the movement patterns of mammoths at all,” adding that additional studies on other tusks may provide them with even more information regarding how mammoths traveled, especially near the end of the Ice Age when the Earth began warming up and they had to deal with climate change.

“Megafauna that are living in the Arctic today are actually facing very substantial and significant climate change,” he noted. “I think it shines a light on concerns of how all those animals will adapt their behavior in response to very unprecedented changes that we’re seeing in the Arctic today.”

The research was published in the journal Science.

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