Why Did the Woolly Mammoth Die Out?

Woolly mammoth’s roamed the Earth tens of thousands of years ago, leading lives similar – but colder - to modern-day elephants, of whom the Asian Elephant is the closest living descendant. The woolly mammoth was a commonly found animal during the last ice age, if the fossil record is to be believed. Mammoth fossils have been discovered on every continent except Australia and South America.
Mammoths were similar in size to elephants, but had adapted individual characteristics to live in the extreme cold weather of the ice age. Mammoths had narrower skulls, smaller ears and shorter tails and perhaps the most obvious difference between them and elephants was that woolly mammoths were covered in a full coat of hair.
Surviving in the cold, dry tundra of the ice age, woolly mammoths were well adapted to their environment, using their large tusks to brush away snow as they looked for food and secreting oil that covered their fur, insulating them further from the cold.
But then, 10,000 years or so ago their numbers began to dwindle before eventually becoming extinct 4,000 years ago. But what really led to the disappearance of these large herbivores from the planet? We take a look at the evidence and try to decipher what was the real cause of their demise.

Why Did the Woolly Mammoth Die Out? Reason Number One: Climate Change

Scientists have always been intrigued about what caused the extinction of the large mammals, or megafauna, which lived in the late Pleistocene Period. The Pleistocene Period started about 1.8 million years ago, but ended just 10,000 years ago with the last ice age.
It was around that time that mammoths, the sabre-toothed cat, ground sloths and Native American horses and camels all became less populous and eventually became extinct.
The popular reason often given for the demise of the Woolly Mammoth is that as the Earth began to heat up, the world’s climate became too much for the mammoths to handle, who had evolved to live in conditions of a colder globe.
Climate change has been held widely responsible for this loss, as these large mammals struggled to adapt to changing conditions and environments. Mammoths were herbivores so were very dependent on gaining all the nutrients they needed to survive from the plants that they ate – if climate change led to the dying out of some vital mineral-supplying plants, mammoths would suffer considerably.



Why Did the Woolly Mammoth Die Out? Reason Number Two: Humans

But while sudden changes to Earth’s climate may have played a part in the demise of the mammoth and other large mammals that roamed the Earth’s surface 10,000 or so years ago, scientists are increasingly beginning to argue that human influence was significant.
When the ice age ended and temperature and climate became more amenable, vast areas of the world became habitable by humans, who advanced northwards exploring new territories. As humans spread out they came into contact with woolly mammoths, which they hunted. Humans hunted mammoths for their meat, bones and skin. Some scientists believe that a poor habitat as a result of climate change, combined with increased contact and hunting by humans as they increasingly entered their areas of habitat led to their eventual extinction. The mammoth population was at such a low ebb by the time that they were hunted by humans some experts argue that even if every human on the planet at the time killed a mammoth once every three years, the woolly mammoth would have become extinct. So, while climate change dealt the mammoth a crippling blow, it may have been human hunters who landed the killer blow in sealing their fate as an extinct species.

Why Did the Woolly Mammoth Die Out? Reason Number Three: Meteorites or Comets

Research in 2007 revealed that the demise of the woolly mammoth, in North America at least, may have actually been caused by the sudden impact of a meteorite or comet hitting the Earth. Scientists from Brown University, in Rhode Island, USA, believe that they have found evidence of an asteroid hitting the Earth, which led to the extinction of large mammals, including the woolly mammoth in North America, as a result of massive climate change.
The scientists argue that a large asteroid or comets would have hit North America, leading to the melting of ice sheets, extreme wildfires and the whipping up of hurricane force winds, which in turn led to the extreme ‘big freeze’ cooling of what is referred to as the Younger Dryas Period. The Younger Dryas period took place an estimated 10,000 or so years ago, when the world was heating up from the last ice age. However, it was a short-lived (700 years) cold snap that had a massive effect on the climate of North America and Europe.

Upcoming Episodes

  • Monday, 19 January at 3:30pm