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com!! About 140, 000 years ago in what’s now SouthDakota, a mammoth approached a sinkhole filled with steaming water.
Lured by vegetation, the mammoth venturedinto the water.
But with its flat, heavy feet, it had littlehope of scaling the steep, muddy sides of the pond to climb out.
With no hope of escape, it either starved or drowned, eventually being covered by silt and preserved.
And it wasn’t the only one.
To date, the remains of 61 mammoths have beenexcavated from the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, South Dakota, all victims of an ancient sinkhole.
And one of the most intriguing things aboutthese dead mammoths is that the vast majority of them are male.
Woolly mammoths roamed Eurasia and North Americafor millions of years.
They foraged mainly on grasses, along withsome shrubs, mosses, and herbs.
They fended off wolves, cave hyenas, and bigcats with their large bodies, huge, curved tusks and powerful trunks.
The life of a mammoth was probably a lot likethe life of their distant cousins, the elephants.
But what caused the extinction of the mammothsis still a matter of debate.
They disappeared from Europe and North Americaat the end of the last ice age, about 10, 000 years ago, though some small groups hung onfor much longer by hiding out in remote areas.
The very last mammoths died out on a smallisland in the Arctic Ocean about 4000 years ago – around the same time that the ancientEgyptians were constructing the Great Pyramid of Giza.
Experts blame the mammoths’ extinction mostlyon a rapidly changing climate, with maybe a little hunting by, well, us.
And today, we’ve teamed up with TierZooto solve one of the mysteries about these charismatic megafauna, gamer-style.
As TierZoo put it, the mammoth’stop tier gear and high HP dominated the Pleistocene meta.
But climate change doesn’t explain the naggingmystery about our favorite ice age proboscidean: Why do most remains of mammoths found in thefossil record turn out to be male? Even without humans hunting them or the icesheets melting, mammoth life was dangerous.
The Ice Age tundra could be an unforgivingplace to live.
Dry, dusty winds.
Not swampy, like our modern tundra, but stillno picnic.
And even if the cold or wind didn’t getyou, the tundra was full of deadly traps that sent unsuspecting inhabitants to an earlygrave.
In 1901, a group of scientists from St.
Petersburgventured into the Siberian tundra.
After several months of chasing tips fromlocals, they saw, or rather smelled, something extraordinary.
It was a woolly mammoth, embedded in the frozenbanks of the Berezovka River.
Its head and neck had thawed enough to rot, attracting scavengers.
These scanvengers were eating meat that was thousands of years old! I just want to emphasize that.
After they slowly dug the carcass out fromthe bank, the team’s paleontologist examined it closely.
Its leg bones and pelvis were broken.
Its blood vessels had torn open, causing bloodto pool around its muscles.
He said this creature fell from a cliffalong the river, and was smothered by the ensuing landslide of half-frozen mud.
The Berezovka mammoth would turn out to bea famous, early example of this kind of accidental preservation.
Fast-forward to 2007.
A reindeer herder found another carcass alonga frozen Siberian river, this time on the Yamal Peninsula.
It was a small woolly mammoth calf, only abouta month old.
Fermenting bacteria had taken over the remains, pickling the carcass and thwarting scavengers.
Lyuba, as she was named, was fat and healthywhen she died.
But her skull was full of nodules of ironphosphate, a sign that a lot of blood had flowed to her brain just before she died.
This was clear evidence of the mammalian divingreflex that activates when a mammal’s face is submerged in cold water and it has to holdits breath.
She also had sediment in her trunk, trachea, and lungs.
Poor Lyuba seems to have face-planted intosome soupy mud and suffocated while trying to clear it from her trunk.
Like the Berezovka mammoth and Lyuba, manymammoths’ lives were claimed by the treacherous landscape of the tundra.
But for paleontologists, dramatic deaths likethese are a goldmine.
Since these specimens were buried quickly, they were shielded from scavengers like wolves, so their bodies had a much better chance ofbeing preserved.
And these accident victims can reveal incredibledetails about how mammoths lived.
The Berezovka mammoth had half-chewed leavesand grasses between its teeth.
Lyuba still had her mother’s milk in herstomach.
But a freak accident like falling into mudand suffocating could happen to anyone, right? The fact is, even if they stayed far awayfrom environmental hazards, mammoth life was still not easy.
In the Little Badlands of Nebraska in 1962, a couple of workers discovered a large thighbonewhile surveying for a dam.
Paleontologists quickly descended on the sceneand unearthed the remains of not one but two Columbian mammoths, the larger, southern cousinof the woolly mammoth.
And the tusks of the two males were lockedtogether in mortal combat.
They each had a broken tusk, and one had runits tusk through the eye of his opponent.
Brutal! These bull mammoths, later named Benny andGeorge, met about 10, 000 years ago and died fighting over.
you guessed it….
And we think is what happened, because modernbull elephants also get into aggressive confrontations and fight each other with their tusks, oftenfor access to females.
They go pretty wild during the breeding seasonbecause of raging hormones during a phase called musth.
Researchers were able to confirm that theseanimals died during the spring — which was their mating season — by looking at the levelsof carbon and oxygen isotopes in their tusks.
They’re high in the summer and lower inthe winter, and Benny and George looked like they’d just passed the winter low point.
And they also had the thin growth rings intheir tusks that were consistent with mature males when they’re in musth.
During their battle, one of the two bullsmust have slipped, dragging the other to the ground.
Exhausted and locked together, they starved.
Their heavy bodies started to sink into thewet, muddy earth.
And then they were covered with sediment, maybe from a flood, preserving them for thousands of years, to become one of the most uniquemammoths ever discovered.
And, like Benny and George, most of the mammothsrecovered by paleontologists again are male.
Even a 2017 genetic study of Siberian mammothbones, teeth, tusks, and hair revealed that over two-thirds of their 98 mammoth fossilswere male.
So why is the mammoth fossil record so male-dominated? It may be because female mammoths knew howto stay out of trouble a bit better.
Just like modern elephants, young female mammothsprobably stayed close to their female relatives.
Elephants live in matriarchal family groups, led by wise, old females.
The matriarch uses her decades of experienceto keep her younger sisters, nieces, and grandchildren fed, hydrated, and safe.
Mammoths likely had a similar family structure, and we can infer this from their remains.
When we find the bones of a single mammoth, they’re usually from a male.
And only in rare cases are huge groups ofyoung and female mammoths found together, having met their end in a sudden catastrophe, like we see at Waco Mammoth National Monument in Texas.
It all points to a female-centric family group.
Female mammoths likely stayed close and learnedfrom their family members, while the males, on the other hand, went off on their own earlyand unprepared.
After leaving their family group and in theirquest for mates, these young male mammoths made deadly mistakes that females rarely made.
But like, that’s how’d I would explain it to you.
TierZoo can explain it to you another way: In order to complete the mating questline, the male Mammoth build generally was forced to engage in much riskier gameplay and morePvP than a female mammoth was.
Just like the elephants of today’s anthropocenemeta, a successful playthrough on a male mammoth involved leaving the safety of their partyonce they’d leveled up enough to reach sexual maturity.
With no teammates to defend them if thingsgot ugly, far more low level male mammoth players died from things like environmentalhazards and ambushes than female ones did, and on top of that, the mating questline forcedthem into potentially deadly duels with other bulls.
Female players on the other hand would havefar more protection from ambushes, had more opportunities to learn to avoid common environmentalhazards, and never were forced to battle each other to reproduce.
Thanks TierZoo! This is very cool to be doing.
The natural traps of the Pleistocene weregreat at preserving the remains of males who made mistakes in wonderful detail.
Which means that we have better fossils fromthem than we do from mammoths who lived long, boring lives.
So it’s not that there were more male mammoths;it’s that they tended more often to die in ways that would better preserve their remains.
And also their mistakes for us to examine in the future And now museums around the world are stockedwith male mammoths.
But what does this mean for people who studymammoths? Isn’t it a problem that most of our informationabout them comes from males? Well yes and no.
With mostly male remains, we miss out on alot of important parts of mammoth life because we don’t have a good comparison point forthe males.
Although mammoths show some sexual dimorphism- like differences in pelvis size – we can't get a good sense of the degree of that dimorphism.
Like did male mammoths have bigger feet? Did female mammoths have smaller ears on average? It’s hard to say without a good set of remainsfrom both sexes.
But the hole in the fossil record in the firstplace also tells us something, because it’s there.
It tells us that male mammoth life was somehowvery different from female mammoth life, because young male mammoths were much more likelyto die in accidents.
So as TierZoo might put it: For lowlevel male mammoth builds, not knowing about the traps in the Ice Age meta often led toan early game over.
And for human players, the lack of femalemammoth loot clued them into the mysterious early game of the most famous build of theQuaternary Expansion.
But for us here at Eons, our takeaway is:Sometimes the information you don’t have is just as important as the information youdo have – for which is good news for anyone working with a limited fossil record.
And if you haven't checked out TierZoo, Why not!? What a wonderful lens through which to view the biology of our planet Check it out at youtube.
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