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Humans drove woolly mammoths to extinction

An international team of scientists led by the University of Adelaide and the University of Copenhagen have found that humans had a significant role in the extinction of woolly mammoths in Eurasia. Moreover, the study also shows that the extinction of mammoths occurred thousands of years later than previously thought.

“Our analyses strengthen and better resolves the case for human impacts as a driver of population declines and range collapses of megafauna in Eurasia during the late Pleistocene,” said study co-author David Nogues-Bravo, a professor of Macroecology, Evolution, and Climate Sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

“It also refutes a prevalent theory that climate change alone decimated woolly mammoth populations and that the role of humans was limited to hunters delivering the coup de grâce. And shows that species extinctions are usually the result of complex interactions between threatening processes.”

By using computer models, fossils, and ancient DNA, the scientists identified signatures of past changes in the distribution and demography of woolly mammoths, which provided clear evidence that humans hastened the extinction of mammoths by up to 4,000 years in some regions in Eurasia. 

“We know that humans exploited woolly mammoths for meat, skins, bones, and ivory. However, until now it has been difficult to disentangle the exact roles that climate warming and human hunting had on its extinction,” said study lead author Damien Fordham, an associate professor of Global Ecology at the University of Adelaide.

“Our research shows that humans were a crucial and chronic driver of population declines of woolly mammoths, having an essential role in the timing and location of their extinction.”

Furthermore, the researchers discovered that mammoths are likely to have survived in Arctic regions with suitable climates and low densities of humans for thousands of years longer than initially thought. 

“Our finding of long-term persistence in Eurasia independently confirms recently published environmental DNA evidence that shows that woolly mammoths were roaming around Siberia 5,000 years ago,” said study co-author Jeremy Austin, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide’s Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

The study is published in the journal Ecology Letters.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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