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Woolly Mammoth Tusk Reveals Uber-distance Migrations, Says Study

Woolly Mammoth Tusk Reveals Uber-distance Migrations, Says Study

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The Earth has had five mass extinctions, the most recent of which, 11,700 years ago, was caused by an extended period of warming. That event alone wiped out more than 75% of the large Ice Age animals, including the iconic woolly mammoth, the hairy ancestor of the modern elephant. And now, according to a new study of woolly mammoth tusks in the journal  Science, one male called Kik wandered far enough in his lifetime to almost encircle the earth twice! 

Woolly Mammoth Tusks, Like Tree Trunks, Contain Data!

Kik was named after the Kikiakrorak River in  Alaska where his remains were found. He died 17,100 years ago and was 28 years old when he died. A study of his 1.7m (5.5 feet) long tusks and other fragments of his DNA reveal that he had travelled a mammoth 70,000 km (43,500 miles) during his lifetime.

The study was co-led by Clement Bataille, a researcher from the University of Ottawa, and Matthew Wooller from the University of Alaska  Fairbanks. “This really is one of the very first insights into the life history of an Arctic woolly mammoth,” said Prof. Wooller.

A closeup of Kik’s split tusk stained blue to reveal the growth layers over the years, which, as it turns out, allowed scientists to determine just how far these woolly mammals travelled in a lifetime. Samples were taken along the tusk using lasers and other techniques, allowing for advanced isotope analysis that provided a record of Kik’s life. (JR Ancheta /  University of Alaska Fairbanks )

According to  Reuters, the tusk is where the story lies. Kik’s gigantic tusk was sliced open, which exposed the distinct layers that were added as he grew, generating 400,000 data points for  isotope analysis . Those layers, Wooller said, are like “sugar ice cream cones stacked one inside of each other.” "It's not clear-cut if it was a seasonal migrator, but it covered some serious ground. It visited many parts of Alaska at some point during its lifetime, which is pretty amazing when you think about how big that area is,” added Prof. Wooller. 

Kik traversed the length and breadth of the  Alaskan tundra  many times. And based on the study results, he is estimated to have travelled twice around the equator in 28 years.

Yet Kik occupied different parts of the tundra at different ages, which leads to a number of fascinating insights. The tip of his tusk, 10 cm (4 inches) in diameter, indicates its first year was spent in Yukon River basin in interior Alaska. From there, it diversified its area, roaming over a larger area in the  Brooks Range area  till the age of 16. And just like in elephant herds when youngsters separate at some point, and roam more extensively, Kik did the same. However, according to Prof. Baille, “Our hypothesis is that he got kicked out of the matriarchal herd at that point, which is what happens to male elephants at about that age as well.”

Matthew Wooller, director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility, kneels among a collection of woolly mammoth tusks at the University of Alaska Museum of the North. (JR Ancheta /  University of Alaska Fairbanks )

Woolly Mammoths and Climate Change, Yesterday and Today

Human activity and  climate change  are inextricably linked today. But during the immense period of time that woolly mammoths were on earth climate change was also present. And this change in climate helped human hunters, who were able to attack mammoths forced out of their habitats in search of other ones.

Analysis of the carbon and nitrogen isotopes in Kik’s tusk suggest he, very sadly,  starved to death  north of the Brooks Range on an Arctic gravel bar. “He could have hurt himself in a fight, or he could have hurt himself travelling, or he could have become sick,” said Bataille.

Woolly mammoths  are a source of fascination for humans, not just because of their relation to the modern elephant, but also because of how well preserved and detailed their remains are. Frozen carcasses have been discovered in  Siberia and Alaska, along with their skeletons, teeth, stomach, and dung. And we have more than a few  cave paintings  showing these hairy beasts and how they were hunted.

A team of researchers “extracted extremely degraded DNA, and pieced it back together to reveal a previously unknown genetic mammoth lineage” from the teeth of three ancient mammoths that roamed Siberia between 700,000 and 1.2 million years ago, as stated in a February 2021 report on  Science Alert

The earth is currently experiencing unpredictable  weather patterns , record breaking temperatures and the disappearance of thick sheets of  Arctic ice . Studying prehistoric animals and their behavior during the last major Ice Age can be an important tool to predict the impact of modern climate change on existing species living in Arctic climates. 

"The Arctic is seeing a lot of changes now, and we can use the past to see how the future may play out for species today and in the future," Prof. Wooller said. "Trying to solve this detective story is an example of how our planet and ecosystems react in the face of environmental change."

Top image: A herd of woolly mammoths on the move in prehistoric Alaska. Turns out that some of these enormous beasts walked the equivalent distance of twice around the equator in their lifetime!                                                         Source:  denissimonov / Adobe Stock

By Sahir Pandey

References

Davis, N. 2021. Woolly mammoth walked far enough to circle Earth twice, study finds. Available at:  https://www.theguardian.com/science/2021/aug/12/woolly-mammoth-walked-far-enough-circle-earth-twice-study.

Koumoundourous, T. 2021.  An Ancient Woolly Mammoth Trekked So Far, It Could Have Circled The Globe Twice . Available at:  https://www.sciencealert.com/researchers-decipher-the-travel-diary-written-within-a-17-000-year-old-mammoth-s-tusk.

Rincon, P. 2021.  Tusk reveals woolly mammoth's massive lifetime mileage . Available at:  https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-58191123.

Rosen, Y. 2021.  Lifecycle of Alaskan woolly mammoth documented in new analysis of his tusk . Available at:  https://www.reuters.com/article/alaska-mammoth/life-cycle-of-alaskan-wooly-mammoth-documented-in-new-analysis-of-his-tusk-idUSL1N2PJ298.

Wooller, M., Bataille, C.,  et al . 2021.  Lifetime mobility of an Arctic woolly mammoth.  Science, 373. Available at:  https://science.sciencemag.org/content/373/6556/806.full.

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Archaeology articles and anthropogenic climate change are inextricably linked today.

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