Mammoths of Wrangel Island

Mammoths of Wrangel Island

Mammoths of Wrangel Island Outlived Other Mammoths

We’re all familiar with the woolly mammoth: a typical African elephant, covered in thick brown hair topped off with enormous tusks. These creatures, typically associated with the frigid tundras, first appeared approximately 700,000 years ago.  They are now extinct, but did you know that a small, secluded population survived for 6,000 years after all other mammoths died out?  It’s astounding to think that the mammoths of Wrangel Island were alive at the same time that the pyramids were being erected in Egypt!

About 12,000 years ago Wrangel Island separated from Russia, taking a small population of woolly mammoths with it.  Wrangel Island is one of the most restricted nature sanctuaries in the world.  Maintained by Russia, copious government permits are required to enter.  Its use is reserved, almost exclusively, for scientific research.  

Wrangel Island
Wrangel Island was separated from mainland Russia. Mammoths here outlived their mainland counterparts by 6000 years.

The island itself is incredibly special: during recent ice ages it never fully glaciated.  This means that going to the island is like going back in time.  Imagine a window that reveals what the tundra’s of the Pleistocene era would have looked like.  It was here that the last mammoths apparently died off, living until approximately 1,700 BC.  

Extinction of the Mammoths

It’s generally believed that mammoths went extinct due to the earth’s rising temperature and human hunting.  However, there is no evidence that the mammoths of Wrangel Island were hunted by humans.  Based on that, we can speculate that this plays a role in delaying their extinction.  Quite simply: not having to face both the climate change and the threat of humans simultaneously allowed them to persist. This would ultimately prove futile.  To this day, mammoth tusks can be found throughout the island; on beaches or in streams.  

So what did eventually kill off the mammoths of Wrangel Island? To answer this, we must examine what we do know.  Originally, it was believed that the island had a population of about 500 mammoths.  This would be a large enough population to promote genetic diversity.

However, it was recently found that the population was closer to 330.  By sequencing the genome found the mammoths of Wrangel Island, researchers now believe their population suffered from inbreeding. They believe it is plausible that genetic defects caused the mammoths to die younger, making it impossible for them to reproduce.  With such a shallow gene pool, their extinction was only a matter of time.  In this case, roughly 6000 years.

In recent years scientists have been looking into the possibility of resurrecting mammoths via cloning.  Understandably, there are a plethora of ethical concerns as to whether this should actually happen.

Those issues aside, wouldn’t it be awesome to be able to see a woolly mammoth in your lifetime?