Woolly mammoths killed by climate change, not man… but then man

27 Jul 2015

Rather than an extreme cold period in our planet’s past, or the evolution of humans extensively hunting for meat, mass extinction of many of our favourite massive animals was, in fact, primarily down to sharp increases in the temperature on Earth, according to a new report.

Research into the eradication of the likes of woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, Irish elks and giant sloths in the Pleistocene age has revealed that bouts of temperature changes right up until 11,000 years ago put a huge strain on the populations of ‘megafauna’.

A study by Australian researchers discovered a series of “abrupt warmings” occurred during the last Ice Age, which was when these giant animals finally died off.

“This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” said Alan Cooper, lead author of the paper, which has been published in Science.

We’re not making it any easier on ourselves

The worrying thing now, though, is we are currently going through a general heating up of the atmosphere with the addition of man-made influences.

This is something of huge concern to Cooper, a director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA.

“When you add the modern addition of human pressures and fragmenting of the environment to the rapid changes brought by global warming, it raises serious concerns about the future of our environment.”

The sabre tooth tiger went extinct around the same time

The Smilodon died off at the same time

What’s key to this research, though, is that these times of spiking temperatures, known as interstadials, came before man could have killed these beasts off, so, for once, we weren’t the sole reason some animals went extinct.

But that’s not to say we didn’t, eventually, play a part.

“The abrupt warming of the climate caused massive changes to the environment that set the extinction events in motion, but the rise of humans applied the coup de grâce to a population that was already under stress,” said Prof Chris Turney from the University of New South Wales, another author on the paper.

The paper suggests that populations of these animals simply couldn’t handle the repeated and rapid climatic shifts before, subsequently, and to a lesser degree, becoming susceptible to evolving human habits.

Main image and sabre-toothed cat image via Shutterstock

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic