Western University scientists solve mammoth-sized ‘conundrum’

While a theme park like Jurassic World is left for Hollywood to explore, understanding the interactions between prehistoric animals and their environment is critical to comprehending global issues like climate change and resource consumption for scientists investigating the Earth today.

In a new study published by Nature Scientific Reports, Rachel Schwartz-Narbonne, Fred Longstaffe and Jessica Metcalfe from Western University’s Faculty of Science, and Grant Zazula from the Yukon Paleontology Program have partially solved the woolly mammoth conundrum. This long-held mystery relates to the fact that scientists know that the ancient elephant was an herbivore but chemical analysis of its bones makes it look like a carnivore.

By analyzing the stable isotope chemistry of bones and teeth of woolly mammoth samples collected by the Government of Yukon’s Tourism and Culture Palaeontology Program, this Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)-funded study was able to identify that the cause of the ‘conundrum’ is that either the woolly mammoths lived in a very distinct habitat or they consumed a very distinct food source that most of the other prehistoric animals of the Pleistocene epoch didn’t eat.

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“Most previous studies looked at bulk proteins that are preserved in bones,” explains Schwartz-Narbonne, a graduate student in Western’s Department of Earth Sciences. “We took the proteins and separated them into individual amino acids, which gave us a lot more information than the bulk protein.”

Schwartz-Narbonne says a collaborator is currently studying which possible food source could account for the high isotopic compositions of nitrogen. Her other hypotheses are that the ‘conundrum’ could be caused by woolly mammoths living in habitats that were extremely dry or that these animals repeatedly traveled the same migration routes so that the dung they left would have fertilized the plants they ate along the way. Another possible explanation is that since woolly mammoths have such large feet and tusks, the now-extinct mammal may have knocked snow and ice away, allowing for consumption of decayed plants below the winter cover that other animals couldn’t reach.

“Woolly mammoths were keystone herbivores, which means that they helped to create the ecosystem in which they lived. But climate change might have caused their forage and habitat to degrade substantially, which ultimately may have caused their extinction. And their extinction could have led to the loss of the whole ecosystem,” says Schwartz-Narbonne.

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Understanding the interactions between prehistoric animals and their environment is critical to comprehending global issues like climate change and resource consumption for scientists investigating the Earth today.