Researchers have long been trying to figure out what killed off the mighty woolly mammoth.
Most of them, of course, met their end at the close of the last Ice Age. Others were hunted relentlessly by humans. But one group that once existed on St. Paul Island in Alaska has always left researchers scratching their heads. That’s because even at the close of the previous Ice Age, the island would have been cool enough for them to survive, and no humans ever set foot there until after the animals were already gone.
So what happened to them?
The answer, it turns out, could serve as a very valuable lesson to the human race. Researchers discovered that the mammoths on St. Paul Island likely died of thirst. You see, because the animals lived on such a small island, the environment around them was paramount to their survival. There was only so much food and so much freshwater to go around. But according to the study, the mammoths were not kind to their environment.
“As ecosystem engineers, elephants strongly modify their local environments, especially at water holes and other areas of heavy use,” the study reads. “Mammoth activity around Lake Hill probably contributed to the degradation of freshwater quality.”
Researchers believe the mammoths ultimately stripped their watering hole bare of its foliage and plant life, accelerated rates of erosion around the watering hole, and contributed to lake infilling. In turn, the plankton-like organisms in the water began to die and the microscopic makeup of the lake rapidly shifted, leading to the deterioration of water quality.
So why didn’t the mammoths simply find another lake, you ask?
The end of the last Ice Age meant temperatures were rising all around the world (re: climate change). As all that ice melted, ocean levels began to rise, and soon the mammoths found themselves on a smaller and smaller island with access to fewer and fewer resources.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
This phenomenon is what is believed to have killed the mammoths of St. Paul Island. And as humans rapidly slash through forests, pump our atmosphere with carbon, and drain our lakes dry of their waters, we have to wonder if we’re in for the same fate.
Hopefully, we’ll prove once and for all that we’re a little smarter than those prehistoric beasts.
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