The last known population of woolly mammoths, roaming a remote Arctic island long after humans invented writing, were wiped out quickly, reports a study released Wednesday.
The culprit might have been disease, humans or a catastrophic weather event, but was almost certainly not climate change, suggests the study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Exactly why a majority of the huge tuskers that once strode in large herds across Eurasia and north America died out toward the end of the last ice age has generated fiery debate.
Some experts hold that mammoths were hunted to extinction beginning some 10,000 years ago by the species that was to become the planet’s dominant predator — humans.
Others argue that climate change was more to blame, leaving a species adapted for frigid climes ill-equipped to cope with a warming world.
It has long been known that a colony of woolly mammoths survived up until about four thousand years ago on what is today Russia’s Wrangel Island, north of Siberia in the Arctic Ocean.
Radiocarbon dating shows that at least a few hardy individuals were still hanging on as late as 1700 B.C.
To better understand their demise, researchers led by Anders Angerbjorn of Stockholm University analysed bits of mitochondrial DNA — genetic material inherited through females — extracted from bone and tusk.
They reasoned that signs of dwindling genetic diversity would mean that too much inbreeding among a small population could have partially caused the animals to die out.
“It could be that the island was simply too small to support a long-term viable mammoth population,” the authors speculated.