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Woolly mammoth named "Elma" has an intriguing story to tell

Scientists have traced the journey of a 14,000-year-old woolly mammoth, named Élmayųujey’eh, tying its movements directly to the oldest human settlements in Alaska. 

This revelation offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of some of the earliest people to traverse the Bering Land Bridge, and their interactions with these iconic creatures.

The study was led by Audrey Rowe, a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF). The researchers used isotope analysis to delve into the life of Élmayųujey’eh — affectionately known as Elma

The discovery of her tusk at the Swan Point archaeological site in interior Alaska marked a significant milestone in understanding the coexistence of mammoths and early human settlers in the region.

Woolly mammoths and humans 

The researchers found that isotopic data from Elma’s tusk, along with DNA from other mammoths and archaeological evidence from the site, suggested that early Alaskan settlers strategically positioned their settlements in areas frequented by mammoths. 

“She wandered around the densest region of archaeological sites in Alaska,” said Rowe. “It looks like these early people were establishing hunting camps in areas that were frequented by mammoths.”

This indicates a symbiotic relationship between the mammoths and human hunter-gatherers, with humans likely relying on these mammoth-populated areas for sustenance.

Elma’s journey, covering approximately 1,000 kilometers through Alaska and northwestern Canada, was not a solitary one.

The tusk and remains of two related juvenile mammoths were excavated in 2009 by Charles Holmes, a research professor at UAF, and François Lanoë, a research associate at the University of Alaska Museum of the North

Accompanying these remains were signs of human activity, including campfires, stone tools, and butchered game remains.

Ben Potter, an archaeologist and professor of anthropology at UAF, said these findings indicate a pattern consistent with human hunting of mammoths.

“Climate change at the end of the ice age fragmented mammoths’ preferred open habitat, potentially decreasing movement and making them more vulnerable to human predation,” Potter said.

Reconstructing Elma’s life

The meticulous analysis of thousands of samples from Elma’s tusk at UAF’s Alaska Stable Isotope Facility allowed the researchers to reconstruct her life story. 

Isotopes, acting as chemical markers, provided insights into her diet and geographical movements, preserved in the layers of her tusk.

The study of these isotopes revealed a chronological record of her life, capturing the essence of a woolly mammoth’s existence in prehistoric times.

Intriguingly, Elma’s path overlapped with that of a male mammoth who lived 3,000 years earlier, hinting at long-term movement patterns among mammoths across millennia. The isotopes indicated that Elma was a healthy, 20-year-old female.

“She was a young adult in the prime of life. Her isotopes showed she was not malnourished and that she died in the same season as the seasonal hunting camp at Swan Point where her tusk was found,” said senior author Matthew Wooller, who is director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility and a professor at UAF’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences.

The end of an era

In summary, this research marks a significant step in understanding the dynamic interactions between early humans and woolly mammoths in Alaska.

By meticulously analyzing Elma’s tusk, scientists traced the mammoth’s extensive journey and revealed the strategic settlement patterns of early Alaskans, highlighting a symbiotic relationship between these ancient people and the iconic mammoths.

This study, a collaborative effort among various universities and research institutions, highlights the survival strategies of early humans in response to changing climates and landscapes, offering a deeper understanding of our ancestral past and the natural world they inhabited.

More about woolly mammoths

As discussed above, woolly mammoths, the iconic behemoths of the Ice Age, once roamed the vast, cold landscapes of Earth, symbolizing the raw beauty and harshness of prehistoric times.

These magnificent creatures, close relatives of today’s elephants, played a pivotal role in their ecosystems and have captivated the human imagination for centuries.

Physical characteristics and habitat

Woolly mammoths stood up to 4 meters tall and weighed as much as 6 tons, with males generally larger than females.

Their most distinctive feature, a thick coat of fur, protected them from the bitter cold of the ice age environment.

This fur comprised a dense undercoat beneath longer, coarser outer hairs, effectively insulating these giants against freezing temperatures.

Woolly mammoths also possessed large, curved tusks, sometimes extending up to 5 meters, which they used for foraging under snow, fighting, and attracting mates.

These animals inhabited a vast range stretching across northern Eurasia and North America, thriving in the grasslands known as the mammoth steppe.

This biome presented a rich array of grasses, herbs, and shrubs, catering to the mammoths’ herbivorous diet.

Woolly mammoth behavior and social structure

Woolly mammoths exhibited complex social behaviors, living in matriarchal herds led by an experienced female.

These herds primarily consisted of females and their young, while adult males often led solitary lives or formed smaller, bachelor groups.

Communication within these groups was crucial, and mammoths likely used a range of vocalizations and physical gestures, much like modern elephants.

As keystone species, woolly mammoths significantly influenced their environment. They helped maintain the grasslands by trampling down trees and shrubs, thus preventing the spread of forests and encouraging the growth of grasses.

Their foraging habits also dispersed plant seeds, contributing to the health and diversity of the Ice Age flora.

Extinction and scientific significance

Woolly mammoths began to disappear around 10,000 years ago, with their extinction likely caused by a combination of climate change and human hunting.

As the ice age concluded, their grassland habitats gave way to forests and tundras, reducing suitable living spaces. Concurrently, human expansion led to increased hunting pressures.

Today, woolly mammoths continue to intrigue scientists. Discoveries of well-preserved specimens in permafrost have provided invaluable insights into Ice Age ecosystems and mammoth biology.

Studies of their DNA are expanding our understanding of prehistoric life and even raising the possibility, albeit controversial, of de-extinction efforts.

In summary, the woolly mammoth, a symbol of the Ice Age’s grandeur, remains a subject of fascination and study, offering a window into a lost world where these gentle giants once roamed.

Their legacy endures, reminding us of the ever-changing nature of our planet and the intricate web of life that has existed long before human history began.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances

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