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Scientists Say Man Helped Lead Mammoths To Extinction

November 28, 2010

Two scientists believe that woolly mammoths were hunted to extinction 10,000 years ago.

The scientists, who live year-round in the frigid Siberian plains, say that man hunted the animals for either food, fuel or fun.

Paleontologists have been trying to determine for decades how these animals came to extinction.  Some theories say that it was due to dramatically warming temperatures along with the migration of men armed with deep-piercing spears.

Sergey Zimov, director of the internationally funded Northeast Science Station, along with his son Nikita say that man was the real agent of change for the species.  

As the ice retreated at the end of the Pleistocene era it cleared the way for man’s expansion into previously inaccessible lands, like this area bordering the East Siberia Sea.

Northeastern Siberia was dry and free of glaciers, but today it is one of the coldest and most formidable spots on the globe.  The ground grew thick with fine layers of dust and decaying plant life, generating rich pastures during the brief summers.

The scientists say that when humans arrived they hunted not only for food, but for the fat that kept the northern animals insulated against the subzero cold, which the hunters burned for fuel.

Hunters may have also killed for sport, in the same way buffalo were heedlessly felled in the American Old West, sometimes from the window of passing trains.

The scientists say that the wholesale slaughter allowed the summer fodder to dry up and destroy the winter supply.

“We don’t look at animals just as animals. We look at them as a system, with vegetation and the whole ecosystem,” said the younger Zimov. “You don’t need to kill all the animals to kill an ecosystem.”

Global temperatures rose 9 degrees Fahrenheit during the transition from the ice age to the modern climate.  However, Zimov said that in Siberia’s northeast the temperature jumped nearly 13 degrees in just three years.

Advocates of climate theory say that the warm wet weather that accompanied the rapid melting of glaciers spawned birch forests that overwhelmed the habitats of the bulky grass eaters.

Adrian Lister of the paleontology department of London’s Natural History Museum, told The Associated Press that humans may have delivered the final blow, but rapid global warming was primarily the reason for the mammoth’s extinction.

He said that it brought an abrupt change in vegetation that squeezed a dwindling number of mammoths into isolation, where hunters were able to pick off the last herds.

People “couldn’t have done the whole job,” he told AP Television News.

Mammoths were once prominent from Russia and northern China to Europe and most of North America, but their population started dropping about 30,000 years ago.  Lister said that by the time the Pleistocene era ended they remained only in northern Siberia.

Zimov believes that hunting is a problem today also.

“I believe it’s possible to increase the density of herbivores in our territory 100 times,” says Zimov, who keeps a 6-foot-long yellow-brown tusk of an 18-year-old female in a corner of his living room. “I say let’s stop the poaching. Let’s give freedom for animals.”

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