Woolly Walks

Look: Ancient tusk gives an unprecedented glance into lives of arctic beasts

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James Havens, The Havens Studio

It might seem like we know a lot about the iconic woolly mammoth, but much of its life cycle still remains a mystery for scientists.

But an August 12 report published in the journal Science gives an unprecedented look at how mammoths lived and migrated.

JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Photo by JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Researchers analyzed a 17,000-year-old mammoth tusk found above the Arctic Circle in Alaska’s North Slope.

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This male mammoth is estimated to be at least 28 years and spent his days wandering modern-day Alaska and Canada.

Photo by JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks

Researchers pieced together the details of his life by doing isotope analysis on each layer of the tusk.

Those layers look a bit like tree rings, since mammoths tusks also grow as they age.

“From the moment [mammoths are] born until the day they die, they’ve got a diary and it’s written in their tusks.”

Pat Druckenmiller, paleontologist and study author

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Here’s how the mammoth’s life unfolded, in 4 stages:

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4. Infant Years

The mammoth was probably born in and lived near the lower Yukon River basin in interior Alaska.

USGS via Wikimedia Commons

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That period lasted about 2 years, after which the young mammoth began to move over progressively longer distances.

3. Juvenile years

From ages two to 16 he travelled further inland, between the Brooks and Alaska mountain ranges.

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The researchers determined that these movements likely happened in a herd. The group made regular trips from the north to the south, and vice versa.

2. Adult Years

Modern male elephants tend to be more mobile than their female counterparts in adulthood. This mammoth followed a similar pattern to its modern-day cousins.

Giphy

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He covered an even broader range of land through his mature years, migrating to regions with more food and resources as the seasons changed.

Frank and Frances Carpenter collection, Library of Congress via National Parks Service

The researchers also note that it appears he trekked through some of the earliest regions where humans lived in Alaska.

1. End of life

During the last year and a half of the mammoth’s life, he spent most of his time north of the Brooks Range until his death in the winter or spring.

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The researchers say he likely died of starvation during a time of year when resources were scarce and temperatures were especially cold.

Here’s the full map of the mammoth’s travels. Wooller, M.J. et. al./Science

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Though there’s still no solid consensus on how the woollies went extinct, isolated cases like this one give researchers better insight into the lives — and deaths — of these famed arctic beasts.

Read more stories about animals here.

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