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What Happened to the Last Woolly Mammoths?

Woolly mammoths were about the size of today’s African elephants, and lived alongside early humans, who hunted them for food and used their bones and tusks as tools in a variety of ways. These creatures disappeared by the end of the Pleistocene Epoch -- some 10,000 years ago -- most likely due to climate change, loss of habitat, or overhunting. However, small populations of woolly mammoths continued to survive on islands in the Arctic Ocean before succumbing to extinction about 3,700 years ago. In the end, harmful gene mutations, probably the result of inbreeding, could have prevented the last mammoths from digesting food properly, damaged their sense of smell, and changed their coats from thick and wiry to soft and silky, which left them vulnerable to the cold.

The end of a species:

  • A 2017 study published in the journal PLOS Genetics compared the genomes of two woolly mammoths -- one that lived in Siberia 45,000 years ago, and one that lived 4,300 years ago on Wrangel Island off the coast of Russia.
  • Researchers found that the genome of the Wrangel mammoth, unlike that of its older counterpart, was riddled with mutations, including one that has been known to cause "satiny" fur in mice.
  • Genes relating to urinary proteins, known to act as pheromones, were also mutated, indicating that the mammoth’s ability to mate may have been negatively impacted.
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