Climate Warming Events Killed Off Woolly Mammoths, New Study Reveals

Climate warming events killed off the mighty woolly mammoth, a new study reveals.

Published in Science magazine this week, the study conducted in Australia determined that large animals, or megafauna, of the last ice age, including woolly mammoths, short-faced bears, the giant sloth, and cave lions, largely went extinct because of rapid climate warming events.

About 60,000 to 12,000 years ago, during the Late Pleistocene era, abrupt climate spikes, called interstadials, increased temperatures between seven and 29 degrees Fahrenheit in a matter of a decade and killed off large animals that could not survive in the hot conditions.

Researchers believe the warming climate change effected the larger animals habitats and prey.

Alan Cooper, the study’s first author and director for the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide in Australia, said in a statement to Live Science that interstadials “are known to have caused dramatic shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns.”

While the climate warming events seemed to have caused the demise of the large animals, temperature drops during the same period had little effect. Only the hot interstadial periods were associated with the large die-offs and eventual extinction, according to Cooper.

Ancient humans also may have played a role in the giant animals’ extinction, said Cooper. By disrupting the animals’ environments, human societies and hunting parties may have made it harder for the animals to migrate to new areas and to repopulate areas where megafauna had gone extinct, he said.

This is not the first study on the extinction of the great animals, but advances in examining ancient DNA and ancient climate allowed Cooper and his colleagues to get more conclusive results.

According to LiveScience, researchers examined DNA from dozens of megafaunal species, or animals weighing greater than 99 pounds, that lived during the Late Pleistocene period, when warming climate events led to their extinction.

They compared the data on megafauna extinction with records of severe climate events gathered from Greenland ice cores and the sedimentary record of the Cariaco Basin off Venezuela.

“By combining these two records, we can place the climate and radiocarbon dating data on the same timescale, thereby allowing us to precisely align the dated fossils against climate. The high-resolution view we gained through this approach clearly showed a strong relationship between warming events and megafaunal extinctions.”

The findings also show that extinction events were staggered over time and space, likely because the interstadial climate warming events had different effects on different regions, Cooper said.

[Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images]