Science says the mammoths were killed by abrupt climate change

A woolly mammoth skeleton. Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Abrupt warming, closely resembling the rapid man-made climate change of today, has repeatedly played a key role in mass extinction events of large animals, scientists say.

Researchers from the University of Adelaide and the University of NSW used advances in analysing ancient DNA plus radiocarbon dating and other geologic records to check temperature changes.

They found that short, rapid warming events recorded during the last ice age 60,000-12,000 years ago coincided with major extinction events even before the appearance of man.

“This abrupt warming had a profound impact on climate that caused marked shifts in global rainfall and vegetation patterns,” says Professor Alan Cooper of the University of Adelaide.

“Even without the presence of humans we saw mass extinctions. When you add the modern addition of human pressures and fragmenting of the environment to the rapid changes brought by global warming, it raises serious concerns about the future of our environment.”

The researchers came to their conclusions after detecting a pattern 10 years ago in ancient DNA studies suggesting the rapid disappearance of large species. At first the researchers thought these were related to intense cold snaps. ‘

However, as more fossil-DNA became available from museum specimen collections and through improvements in carbon dating and temperature records that showed better resolution through time, they were surprised to find the opposite.

It became increasingly clear that rapid warming, not sudden cold snaps, was the cause of the extinctions.

The research helps explain further the sudden disappearance of mammoths and giant sloths which became extinct around 11,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age.

The findings are published in the journal Science.

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