738790125

738790125

Woolly mammoth against white background, illustration.

Photo by: SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

SCIEPRO/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

When in Roam, a Woolly Mammoth’s Tusks are the Map

Roaming with Kik--a look into a woolly mammoth’s tusks unravels its 28-year journey in prehistoric Alaska.

August 20, 2021

As reported in the NY Times, prehistoric Alaska was Kik’s home over 17,000 years ago, where he spent all 28 years of his life. This woolly mammoth had no specific movement pattern as he migrated across Alaskan land. It wasn’t until he turned 15 that he shifted north, away from the interior of Alaska. How exactly is this known and what techniques were used to determine his map of life across Alaska?

It was the curved, eight-foot-long tusks belonging to Kik that allowed scientists to detail a map of where he roamed in life. Matthew Wooller, the lead author of the paper published by the journal Science that describes the findings and the director of stable isotope facility at the University of Alaska, states that the tusks give insight into possible behavior of woolly mammoths and what environment they used. These tusks are essential to understanding how they roamed in life, but what about their ending? Despite their disappearance about 10,000 years ago, there are still fossil remains that haven’t turned to rock. Thus allowing for the extraction and sequencing of DNA, but the genetic information acquired only answers certain broad questions.

1178017077

1178017077

3D illustration of a woolly mammoth skeleton.

Photo by: leonello

leonello

3D illustration of a woolly mammoth skeleton.

To answer questions about whether a mammoth migrated with the seasons or if it spent its youth in a certain region and moved during its adulthood are beyond the scope of being answered with genetic information, however, Dr. Wooller and his colleagues turned to studying isotope signatures in Kik’s tusk. The surface of the base of the tusk is “basically the day it died,” according to Dr. Wooller, and everything after reflects the movements and days of Kik’s life.

What helped further understand how Kik lived, was that the researchers focused on strontium, as Alaska possesses a rich diversity of rock formations, each with varying mineralogical fingerprints, that are reflected in the plants eaten by Kik. It allowed them to compare strontium levels with a map of strontium levels found in rocks around Alaska. This in turn helped scientists form and understand the path that Kik most likely walked through in his life.

Kik’s tusks were found and retrieved in 2010, and it was a rare experience to find both of his tusks together and intact. Parts of his skeleton were also found in the river by his tusks, and this led the scientists to conclude that he had died in that area. Dr. Wooller and his colleagues practiced cutting a “no data tusk” for precaution, and then Kik’s. Aside from strontium, the scientist also looked at other elements such as oxygen, nitrogen and carbon that allowed them information about the ecology as well as helped them lead to the plausible conclusion that Kik might have died from starvation due to the spike in nitrogen isotopes.

1223693150

1223693150

The tusk of an extinct woolly mammoth on Wrangel Island.

Photo by: Gerald Corsi

Gerald Corsi

The tusk of an extinct woolly mammoth on Wrangel Island.

However, what could have caused this starvation? It could have been a drought or an injury that prevented mobility, but it’s not certain. What is certain is that Kik never went across the land bridge that connected Alaska and Russia. Another thing to note, as mentioned by Kate Britton, an archaeologist not involved in the study, is that Kik’s movements are not to be applied to the overall behavior of woolly mammoths as a species.

In performing future research, Dr. Wooller aspires to look into different questions and factors such as herds and gender by examining more mammoth tusks. It’s possible that studying what occurred to the woolly mammoths as the earth warmed in their age could give insight into understanding animals in Alaska today, who are also dealing with warming.

Next Up

2 New Species Of Dinosaurs Found In Northwest China

A tale of two species. Massive sauropod dinosaurs discovered in northwestern China is the region’s first fossil discovery.

‘Bird Brain’ May Have Helped Birds Survive the Dinosaur Extinction

Recently, a fossil of an ancient bird skull was discovered, shedding light on how birds’ large brains may have helped them survive the dinosaur-killing asteroid.

23,000-Year-Old Human Footprints Discovered in America

Ancient human footprints found in New Mexico suggest people may have arrived in the Americas 10,000 years before scientists had previously thought.

The Coronavirus: What You Need to Know About the Virus

As the death tolls rise, Coronavirus is on the minds of people all over the world. Learn about this new virus and how we got here. Originally published: 2/20/2020 Updated: 3/9/2020

Survival Chemistry: The Ingredients for Life on Earth

Oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, and a few other elements from the periodic table make up 99% of our bodies.

Ancient DNA Reveals New Evidence, Changing What We Know About Human Evolution

New DNA evidence found in sediment from Denisova Cave in Siberia reveal that it may have been a common meeting place that overlapped with Neanderthal, Denisova, and Homo sapiens. Could this have altered our evolution as modern humans?

Getting the Benefits of Green Spaces through Virtual Nature

Forests and other natural spaces have proven benefits for our health and mental wellbeing, but getting to the great outdoors isn’t always easy.

Who, What, Where, When, and Pi

Pi always here for you! Let's celebrate 3/14 with the Five Ws of Pi. Well, four Ws and one P.

Icelandic Eruptions Raise Concerns About Volcanic Activity Close to Reykjavik

Iceland has an international reputation as a nation of ice and fire – majestic glaciers mixed with explosive volcanic activity.

Hurricane Prediction: The Forecasting Science that Saves Lives

Hurricane season is a fearful and anxious time of year for many people. Tropical cyclones and storms occur in a geographical belt affecting mostly US coastal states, but the physical and financial destruction they cause mean that science must improve constantly to minimize their effects on society.