Mystery Event Wiped Out Last Woolly Mammoths, Study Finds

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A groundbreaking new study has unveiled that Earth’s last surviving woolly mammoths, who lived in isolation on Wrangel Island in Siberia, were wiped out by a sudden and mysterious event.

This challenges previous theories about their extinction.

Key Findings:

  • Woolly mammoths on Wrangel Island managed to survive for an impressive 6,000 years after their mainland counterparts had perished.
  • The population, which initially consisted of as few as eight individuals and grew to approximately 300, did not die out due to genetic inbreeding as previously believed.
  • Researchers now suggest that a random, sudden event caused their extinction around 4,000 years ago.

Study Details:

Published on June 27 in the journal Cell, the study involved a comprehensive DNA analysis extracted from the bones and tusks of 21 mammoths.

This group included 14 mammoths from Wrangel Island and 7 from the mainland population before they became isolated.

The research team, led by evolutionary geneticist Love Dalén from the Centre for Palaeogenetics in Stockholm, found that while the Wrangel Island mammoths exhibited signs of inbreeding and low genetic diversity, these genetic issues were not severe enough to have caused their extinction.

Historical Context:

Woolly mammoths were once widespread across Europe, Asia, and North America, thriving for hundreds of thousands of years.

However, as the ice age came to an end and temperatures rose, their icy habitats began to melt away, leading to a significant reduction in their range and population.

During this period, a small group of mammoths managed to cross the ice from the northwest coast of Siberia to Wrangel Island.

When the ice bridge disappeared around 10,000 years ago, these mammoths became isolated and continued to survive on the island for another 6,000 years.

New Insights:

Scientists had long suspected that the extinction of the Wrangel Island mammoths was due to harmful mutations caused by inbreeding within a small, isolated population.

However, the new study indicates that these mutations were only moderately harmful and were being gradually eliminated from the population’s genome over time.

This discovery shifts the focus away from genetic issues and towards the possibility of a sudden, external event leading to their extinction.

The Ongoing Mystery:

Despite ruling out genetic factors as the primary cause of extinction, the exact reason behind the sudden demise of the Wrangel Island mammoths remains unknown.

Researchers are now focused on studying mammoth fossils from the island’s last 300 years to uncover more clues about what could have triggered this abrupt event.

Relevance to Modern Conservation:

This research holds significant implications for present-day conservation efforts.

It underscores the importance of not only increasing the population size of endangered species but also actively monitoring their genetic health.

Harmful genetic effects can persist over thousands of years, as evidenced by the Wrangel Island mammoths, highlighting the need for comprehensive genetic management in conservation programs.

Conclusion:

While the precise cause of the woolly mammoths’ sudden extinction on Wrangel Island remains a mystery, this study provides valuable insights into the complexities of extinction and the critical role of genetic health in species survival.

By continuing to investigate the final years of this last mammoth population, scientists hope to shed light on the enigmatic event that brought an end to these iconic Ice Age giants and to apply these lessons to current conservation strategies.


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