The woolly mammoth went extinct about 10,500 years ago. Scientists have floated numerous theories about what killed off these close relatives to modern African elephants. These hypotheses range from over-hunting to a period of rapid climate change that ended the last Ice Age abruptly, destroying the natural habitat of the species.
New evidence based on genetic studies of woolly mammoth remains suggests weakened genetics may have been a significant contributor to their demise. In a 2017 study, genomic analysis showed that many woolly mammoths suffered from various diseases, including diabetes, reduced fertility, and perhaps even loss of smell. The latter would have made them less capable of finding their favorite foods.
According to Rebekah Rogers, an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina., this high rate of disease was likely produced by inbreeding. She said her team’s data shows breaks in genetic material that were more numerous than expected. The genes also displayed high levels of mutations.
Even though most woolly mammoths died out 10,500 years ago, at least two isolated populations managed to survive on remote, isolated islands in Arctic regions. The thick and dense hairy coat of the woolly mammoth required cold temperatures to keep the beast at optimum health. The remains of mammoths that lived up to 5,600 years ago were found on St. Paul Island in Alaska. A group survived up to 4,000 years ago on Wrangle Island in the Siberian Arctic. The small area of the islands also downsized the average size of the mammoths.
Contrary to common belief, woolly mammoths were not larger than their modern elephant cousins. A typical full-grown male might reach 11 to 13 feet in height and weigh about six tons. The big difference was their extraordinary coat of long hair that could grow up to three feet in length.
The woolly mammoth and the modern African elephant both originated in Africa approximately seven million years ago. They are mostly the same species, except one diverged when it adapted to the frigid temperatures of Arctic regions.
Scientists attribute “small genetic changes” that allowed woolly mammoths to grow thick coats. Small mutations also changed how their blood cells could deliver oxygen to fuel their bodies and handle cold weather.