Woolly mammoth was recent resident

18 June 2009

Woolly mammoths were living in Shropshire, England, up until 14,000 years ago, a Natural History Museum scientist reports in the Geological Journal today.

Illustration of a woolly mammoth, species Mammuthus primigenius

Illustration of a woolly mammoth, species Mammuthus primigenius

The Shropshire bones are the latest record of mammoths in north western Europe and this means the species survived here for much longer than previously thought.

Studying mammoth bones

Professor Adrian Lister, fossil expert at the Museum, studied one near-complete adult male and 4 juvenile mammoth skeletons, that belonged to the woolly mammoth species, Mammuthus primigenius. The bones were first excavated in 1986 in Condover, UK.

Dating techniques

The dating techniques carried out at the time have since been considered inaccurate. The technological advances in the last 10 years mean that scientists can now get a much more exact reading.

Lister and his colleagues also carried out geological analysis of the surrounding sediment where the bones were found and studied fossilised plants and insects from the site.

New results

'Mammoths are conventionally believed to have become extinct in north western Europe about 21,000 years ago during the main ice advance, known as the “last glacial maximum”' said Lister. 

'Our new radiocarbon dating of the Condover mammoths changes that, by showing that mammoths returned to Britain and survived until around 14,000 years ago.'

Ice age and changing climates

So, instead of dying out as a result of the climate changes brought by the ice age, the mammoths in Britain moved elsewhere and then returned once conditions improved again.

The ice age left behind open grass landscape that suited the mammoths. However, thousands of years later, the environment began to change again, this time, not in their favour.

Lister explains. 'The new dates of the mammoths’ last appearance correlate very closely in time to climate changes when the open grassy habitat of the ice age was taken over by advancing forests, which provides a likely explanation for their disappearance.'

Human influence?

'There were humans around during the time of the Condover mammoths, but no evidence of significant mammoth hunting.'

So, the Shropshire bones also provide strong evidence to settle the debate as to whether mammoth extinction was caused by climate change or human hunting.

Extinction lag

Part of Lister's research includes 'extinction lag'. This is where small pockets of a species have survived for thousands of years longer than conventionally thought. 

After the last mammoths disappeared from Europe, small populations hung on in northern Siberia. The last ones eventually died out 4,000 years ago. But they had probably been doomed since the end of the ice age.

‘The mammoth story has lessons for us today,’ says Lister. ‘Dating the finds from Condover and elsewhere shows clearly that past climate changes have dramatically shifted, and often reduced, the ranges of species, to the point where they eventually went extinct.'

'And the ‘extinction lag’ phenomenon teaches us not to be complacent. Even if species are not yet extinct due to climate change and habitat destruction caused by humans, many may already be past the point of no return.’

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