Woolly Mammoth

Woolly Mammoth

The woolly mammoth, a prehistoric elephant-like mammal, existed with early humans during the most recent ice age. They emerged as a separate species about 400,000 years ago until becoming extinct concurrent with climate warming which ended the recent glaciation period, 10,000 years back. A few remote pockets of the woolly mammoth survived as recently as 4000 years in the past on Wrangel Island (Russian) in the Arctic Ocean.

 

Depicted in many early human and Neanderthal cave paintings, the woolly mammoths were roughly the size of current African elephants, standing 9 to 11 feet shoulder height. Primary characteristics were long coats of hair, and very long, curvy tusks of up to 14 feet in size. The demise of these magnificent, grass eating creatures who were adapted to a very cold climate is generally attributed to either the warming climate or over-hunting by our ancestors, or possibly a combination of both factors.

Why Are Woolly Mammoths Currently Newsworthy?

Scientist in both the United States and Russia have efforts underway to recreate live woolly mammoths through genetic engineering. Russian scientific rationale for reintroducing the prehistoric species relates to global warming. Their theory proposes the woolly mammoth would lower the temperature of the permafrost by encouraging the growth of steppe grasses which in turn reflect sunlight back into space thereby reducing heat absorbed by the Earth. What are the side effects of introducing a species that went extinct by natural selection 10,000 years ago? Because of the complex interaction of species currently existing, both plant and animal, and the complexity of the planet’s natural systems, the possible outcomes are beyond our imagination.

Note on Ice Ages

During most of our planet’s existence, the poles have been ice free; no polar caps. The first ice age occurred approximately 2.4 to 2.1 billion years ago. The age of the Earth is roughly 4.6 billion years old. The next documented ice age transpired about 850 million years ago, followed by 3 more occurring at closer intervals. The current ice age began about 2.58 million years ago with cycles of advancing and retreating ice sheets of 40,000 and 100,000 year cycles. Yes…we are currently still in an ice age but in a warmer period where glaciers retreat. The onset of glaciers advancing once again could be as early as within next 1000 years. But, global warming through human fossil fuel consumption byproducts is real. Some scientists estimate this effect will delay the natural cycle of glaciers advancing by at least another 5000 years. Clearly, the mechanisms contributing to the Earth’s climate cycles are exceedingly complex, leaving scientific predictive capabilities fraught with potential errors until all interactions are better understood. Forecast for the next decade and beyond is warmer…or maybe colder.

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