Humans hastened the extinction of the wooly mammoth

Siberia was home to wooly mammoths from the middle of the Holocene. Credit: Mauricio Anton
New research has shown that humans played a major role in the extinctions of wooly mammoths from Eurasia thousands of years earlier than previously believed.

A team of international scientists, led by researchers at the University of Adelaide (and the University of Copenhagen), has discovered a path that leads to the extinction of the wooly mammoth. It takes approximately 20,000 years.

Associate Professor Damien Fordham, University of Adelaide's Environment Institute lead author, said that "our research shows humans were a critical and chronic driver of population drops of wooly mammoths," and played an essential role in the timing of their extinction."

"Using computer models and fossils, we identified the mechanisms and threats that led to the decline and eventual extinction of the wooly mammoth."

Evidence from fossils and ancient DNA that shows past changes in distribution and demography of wooly mammals suggests that humans may have contributed to the extinction of wooly mammals by as much as 4,000 years.

"We know that wooly mammoths were exploited by humans for their meat, skins and ivory. It has been hard to determine the exact role that climate change and human hunting played in its extinction," stated Associate Professor Fordham.

This study also shows that wooly mammals may have lived in the Arctic for thousands more years than previously believed, living in areas with favorable climatic conditions and low human densities.

Associate Professor Jeremey A. Austin, from the University of Adelaide's Australian Centre for Ancient DNA said that "our finding of persistent long-term in Eurasia independently confirms recent published environmental DNA evidence which shows that wooly mammals were roaming around Siberia about 5,000 years ago."

The study, which was published in Ecology Letters by Associate Professor David Nogues Bravo from the University of Copenhagen, was co-authored by him.

He said, "Our analyses strengthens or better resolves the case against human impacts as a driver for population declines and range collapsings of megafauna Eurasia during late Pleistocene."

"It also refutes the widespread theory that climate change alone decimated wooly Mammoth populations, and that humans played a limited role in delivering the coup de grace."

"And it shows that species extinctions often result from complex interactions between threatening and enabling processes."

Researchers emphasize that the path to extinction of the wooly mammoth took many millennia and ended with the final event.

Information: Damien A. Fordham and co, Process-explicit model reveals pathway to extinction of woolly mammoths using pattern-oriented validation. Ecology Letters (2021). Information from Ecology Letters Damien A. Fordham and colleagues, Process-explicit Models Reveal Pathway to Extinction for Woolly Mammoths Using Pattern-Oriented Validation, (2021). DOI: 10.111/ele.13911.