Climate change, not humans, was reason woolly mammoths went extinct, research suggests

·3 min read

For millions of years, woolly mammoths roamed across the globe until they disappeared around 4,000 years ago. Their mysterious disappearance has commonly been attributed to humans, who would hunt the animals for food and use the mammoths' remains to build shelters.

While the 6-ton, 9-foot tall animals were a popular catch for humans, new research suggests they aren't the reason the mammoth went extinct, but rather something that still threatens animals today: climate change.

A team of researchers at St. John's College at the University of Cambridge in England analyzed woolly mammoth DNA and environmental remains in soil samples collected from the Arctic for the past 10 years. From there, they determined melting icebergs killed off the woolly mammoths.

When the icebergs melted, vegetation – the primary food source for the animals – became too wet, thus wiping the giant creatures off the face of the planet. Their findings were published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

"When the climate got wetter and the ice began to melt, it led to the formation of lakes, rivers and marshes," Yucheng Wang, author of the paper and zoologist at the University of Cambridge, said in a statement. "We have shown that climate change, specifically precipitation, directly drives the change in the vegetation – humans had no impact on them at all based on our models."

Most commonly associated with the Ice Age, woolly mammoths could be found throughout much of Earth, as their fossils have been found on all continents except Australia and South America. When the Pleistocene Ice Age ended around 12,000 years ago, icebergs began to melt.

Wang says that this would suggest they began to die off after this, but they survived in smaller populations near the Arctic instead with plant life surviving in cold conditions.

Humans and woolly mammoths co-existed for around 2,000 years, but Eske Willerslev, co-author of the study and director of the Lundbeck Foundation GeoGenetics Centre at the University of Copenhagen, argued there were smaller, easier animals to hunt.

"Humans have been blamed because the animals had survived for millions of years without climate change killing them off before, but when they lived alongside humans they didn’t last long and we were accused of hunting them to death," Willerslev said.

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Willerslev added the research shows not only that climate change was the reason why the mammoths died, but it happened exceptionally fast and they "were not able to adapt quickly enough" when icebergs melted and food was scarce.

The finding showing that climate change has impacted wildlife just as human civilization was beginning shows how unpredictable it is, Willerslev said. A recent report by the United Nations said wild weather events will happen more frequently in the future, which could mean animals could experience the same fate as the woolly mammoth, something Willerslev believes can "easily happen again."

“This is a stark lesson from history and shows how unpredictable climate change is – once something is lost, there is no going back," he said. “It shows nothing is guaranteed when it comes to the impact of dramatic changes in the weather."

While it's been thousands of years since a woolly mammoth roamed Earth, they could make a comeback. A technology company is trying to use gene-editing to hopefully bring the animal back to life.

Follow Jordan Mendoza on Twitter: @jordan_mendoza5.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate change killed the woolly mammoth, not humans, study says

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