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Nature Live

August 2014

Fascinating giants that roamed four continents from circa 700,000 to 4,000 years ago: woolly mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius) have been the subject of countless conversations here at the Museum in recent months. So Nature Live thought they would go with the flow by tackling the question of just 'Why did the mammoths go extinct?' Prof Adrian Lister, an expert in vertebrate palaeobiology, led this Nature Live and presented the two main arguments.


Climate problems?


The first argument Adrian presented was the climate change theory: that mammoths used to rely on grasses as their primary food source, and were exclusively vegetarians. These grasses produced a meadow-like landscape, which was a hugely rich and high quality food source for the mammoths.

At the end of the last ice age, around 14,000 years ago, a warming climate caused forest habitat to spread north and gradallly replace grasslands that the mammoths relied on for food.


During the last ice age, these grass meadows expanded across the northern hemisphere, expanding the mammoths' geographic range. These grass meadows were above the tree line, as the grasses could successfully survive in lower temperatures than trees. Here fascinating video footage lit up the Attenborough Studio's big screens, showing the growth and change of distribution of these meadow grasslands across the last ice age.


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Woolly mammoths roamed the earth between ca. 700,000 to 4,000 years ago, before they were driven to extinction.


Adrian then described the range of specialist adaptations that woolly mammoths used to survive in this extreme habitat. The most obvious of these was the thick hair which insulated them from the harshly cold weather conditions. It turns out that mammoths actually had two types of hair: a very fine hair close to the skin trapping and warming the air for insulation, and a coarser hair on the outside to help shield them from cold wind and rain. In addition to these adaptations, woolly mammoths also had a thick layer of fat underneath their skin to further insulate them.


To the audience's amazement at this point a true sample of woolly mammoth hair was put underneath the visualiser in the Studio. The hair was thousands of years old yet fully intact, but this was only the start. Adrian then stepped forward to pick up a whole mammoth lower jaw, illustrating how it would swing back and forth when chewing.


Holding this in his hands in front of the live audience visually demonstrated just how large the teeth of a mammoth were, and the large size of the surface area required for chewing tough plant material like grass. Adrian made it clear that studying mammoth teeth gives researchers a much clearer idea of what they ate. With this increased understanding of what mammoths ate, researchers can better pinpoint factors that could have eventually led to their extinction.


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A woolly mammoth lower jaw like the one presented during the Nature Live by Adrian Lister, demonstrating their huge teeth used for grinding plant matter.


Frozen mammoths have even been discovered with food content still inside their stomachs or intestines, their 'last supper', as it were. Studying these remains of partially digested plant matter taken from inside a preserved woolly mammoth has proven that they certainly did eat grass as a food source.


Knowing for sure that mammoths ate grass supports the climate change theory of habitat change, as the grass plains began to contract at the end of the last ice age around 14,000 years ago. This was because the earth's climate was warming, and forest habitat was spreading north so gradually displacing the grasslands that mammoths relied on for their food.


Adrian explained how, by using radiocarbon dating, we can age mammoth remains very accurately, and this has now been used to age and plot every mammoth fossil ever found. This in turn means that scientists like him can identify and mark the change in woolly mammoth distribution over time. This crucial extinction timeline can then be matched against the known changes in reduced grass cover and the increased spread of forest growth up into the woolly mammoth's natural range.


When scientists compare the changing distribution of woolly mammoths to the changing distribution of their grasslands, they match. This suggests that the spread of the forest upwards into the higher latitudes would have pushed the woolly mammoths north. So it was this change in vegetation from grassland to forest that was a major contributing factor, ultimately leading to the mammoth's extinction.


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As the woolly mammoths' range contracted they became extinct. Studying them now could help prevent future mammal extinctions.


At this point Adrian then put forward a second theory, saying that "nothing in science is ever that simple." This second theory is that early humans could themselves have been responsible for driving the woolly mammoths to extinction. 


Hunted to extinction?


Evidence for the 'people theory' is that the period of time that woolly mammoth numbers were declining also coincided with a rapid increase in the numbers of people. There have been skeleton remains of mammoths found which show damage from a flint tool splintered off in the bone. In the studio, images of this were brought up on the screen, clearly showing a human-crafted spearhead lodged within a mammoth bone. This is evidence that early humans did at least occasionally hunt mammoths as large game, either as a source of food, or for materials to build shelter.


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Flint spear heads have been found splintered-off within mammoth fossils proving that they were occasionally hunted by early humans.


As this Nature Live approached its end, Adrian explained that both of these theories could in fact have worked together at the same time to conspire against the woolly mammoth, thus driving it to extinction. The change in the climate driving forests to spread north would have forced the woolly mammoth into very restricted habitat patches, making them a heavily endangered species; this, combined with hunting by humans could have dealt the final blow to the woolly mammoths, sending them to the icy grave of extinction.


The event did end on a more positive note when Adrian explained that the woolly mammoths' death was not in vain. Studying and understanding the reasons why large mammals like mammoths went extinct could help scientists like Adrian prevent the extinction of other large mammals in future. And research on mammoths is now being used to help try and protect African elephants (Loxodonta africana) from following their footsteps.


Watch Adrian summarise the theories behind the extinction in the Museum's film from the Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibition, which closes on 7 September:



Intelligent, colour-changing, deep-water creatures that possess a beak as well as thousands of 'mini claws' and suckers on each tentacle... Not to mention different species going by the names of Giant and Colossal Squids... Cephalopods certainly made for interesting viewing in a specimen-packed Nature Live here in the Attenborough studio. Dr Jon Ablett showed us around these fascinating creatures one tentacle at a time in this aptly named 'Tentacle Tales' Nature Live.


As the audience strolled into the studio there were some dazzled-looking faces before the event had even started, due to the sheer array of pickled creatures and cephalopod limbs on display. However, when the lights dimmed all attention turned to Jon as he kicked off the event by describing the colour changing capabilities of cephalopods.


He explained that the biology behind cephalopod colour changing is far more advanced than that of the chameleon, the reptile often thought of as the master of colour change (e.g. we often say 'they demonstrated a chameleon-like ability to adapt to their surroundings'). Chameleons use differing levels of hormones in their blood stream to trigger their colour change. However, using the blood stream to achieve this means that the speed of the change is limited by the rate of blood flow around the body.


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The blue ringed octopus which uses its nervous system to trigger skin colour changes.


Cephalopods, on the other hand, trigger their colour changes via their nervous system, which is a far more rapid method of transmitting signals across the body. At this point a video showed exactly how music with a heavy baseline can trigger a cephalopod skin sample to change colour to the beat, as the nerve endings are stimulated.


Following on from this, Jon drew the audience's attention to what it was in the large jars in front of them. In these jars were the remains of squid arms and tentacles. When these specimens were removed it was clear exactly what the difference between a cephalopod arm and tentacle actually is. Cephalopod arms have suckers down their entire length, while the tentacles only have suckers at their tip.



Sharp ring-lined suckers found on the arms (n.b. not tentacles) of some cephalopods.


The range of different types of suckers that cephalopods possess was highlighted through these specimens. It was clear that some cephalopods have arms covered with many round suckers that are also lined with sharp teeth like projections. Others, such as the colossal squid (Mesonychoteuthis hamiltoni) have even more vicious looking ones, each wielding a single large claw projection rising out from their centre that can also rotated.


Having these impressive adaptations allows the cephalopods to not only grab onto but also hold onto their prey when subduing them. For these reasons, coupled with the strength of cephalopod limbs, it is clear why many researchers choose to wear chainmail, akin to that worn my mediaeval knights, for protection when diving with these animals, just in case things do take a nasty turn.


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Suckers with claw projections that colossal squid use to not only grab onto but also to hold onto their prey when subduing them.

© British Antarctic Survey


As this Nature Live drew to a close one of the Museum's true gems of the deep sea stored in the tank room was brought up on the big screen. Archie the giant squid (Architeuthis dux), who was accidentally caught in a fishing net off the coast of the Falkland Islands, is a fully intact specimen over 8 metres in length from tip to tentacle. Archie really put into perspective just how giant, a giant squid really can be.



Archie the giant squid, who can be seen up close and personal during one of the Museum's free Spirit Collection Tours.


Parasites: the name sends a shiver down the spine of many and makes the hairs rise on the back of my own neck, which is exactly why parasites made for a fascinating subject for a Nature Live here at the Museum. Ranging from human-flesh-eating ones, to those that live happily inside the stomach of a live rhino, Zoë Adams one of the Museum's passionate entomologists presented just how she became so 'attached' to studying parasites.


The event started by defining a parasite as a species that lives off or within another organism (the host), but at that organism's expense. With the audience then giving estimates on how many different types of parasites there are in the world, the answer was that up to one third of all life on earth could be technically classed as a parasite.


This then led onto the question, 'is there likely to be a living parasite present right here, right now inside the Attenborough Studio?' A question to which multiple audience members turned to each other with rather concerned looks on their faces. In truth it was revealed that there would almost certainly be a parasite present in the studio, because many of our own eye lashes and eyebrow hairs are home to the humble but harmless follicle mite (Demodex folliculorum). The follicle mite feeds off the sebum that our skin secretes in order to stay supple, and at least one in every three people is predicted to be a host to them.


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The follicle mite (Demodex folliculorum) that lives in the eyebrows of many people


The talk then proceeded with some rather nasty looking images displayed on screen, showing a botfly larva parasitising a human host. However, what Zoë went on to highlight was that this particular human host was none other than her own boss, who had become home to one of these blood hungry larval creatures while on a field trip in Bolivia! One of the images showed how a botfly larva obtains oxygen by using a small breathing tube which pokes out of the surface of the skin. The botfly larva eventually had to be surgically removed.


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Botfly larva, showing the breathing tube that it uses while buried under the skin of its host


With this newfound knowledge, and an audience suddenly more likely to think twice before booking there next holiday to exotic climes, the Nature Live moved onto other, more familiar, wild mammals that suffer from parasites... a personal favourite parasite of Zoë's being the rhinoceros stomach botfly (Gyrostigma rhinocerontis).


Zoë expertly explained how these parasites have a very interesting lifecycle which relies on the rhinoceros being a creature of habit, choosing to respond to the call of nature and deposit their dung in the same places each time throughout their natural range. This particular botfly larva chooses to house itself within the stomach of rhinos as it is warm and safely away from natural predators. Once the rhino has 'done its business' the larva pupates in the faeces now outside of the rhino, where it can emerge and wait for another rhino host to do the same.


After another rhino has visited and deposited another stomach botfly larva in the same pile of dung, the botflies are able to emerge from pupation and mate, creating a new generation which can then repeat the lifecycle. This unique life cycle of the rhinoceros botfly is only made possible by the rhino using these same areas for defecation, just like humans repeatedly use the same locations for their own business (i.e. public toilets).


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An adult rhinoceros stomach botfly (Gyrostigma rhinocerontis), whose larvae happily reside within the stomach of a living rhino as part of its lifecycle


By the end of the Nature Live, the audience was certainly left feeling slightly baffled by the sheer numbers and range of different life strategies that parasites have evolved to occupy their niche in the natural world. Though, one hopes, they also left with a new found respect for the amazing and effective strategies that parasites use to live their lives.