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UAF researchers look at the life of a 17,000-year-old mammoth

The research team said the mammoth covered enough of the Alaska landscape in its lifetime to circle the globe twice
Dr. Matthew Woller (left) and Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller (right) kneeling next to the 17,000...
Dr. Matthew Woller (left) and Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller (right) kneeling next to the 17,000 year old mammoth tusk they're studying.(JR Ancheta | UAF)
Updated: Sep. 1, 2021 at 7:00 AM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - An international research team, including researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is taking an unprecedented peek into the life of a wooly mammoth that lived in Alaska 17,000 years ago. The researchers say almost everything you need to know about where it roamed, fed and lived can be found in its tusk.

“Tusks are simply modified teeth, and in fact, in the case of a mammoth it’s a modified incisor, so one of the front upper teeth, and it’s basically a tooth that grows continuously throughout the life of the mammoth,” said Dr. Patrick Druckenmiller, a Mesozoic paleontologist, associate professor and curator at the Museum of the North at UAF. “And as it grows, it actually on a daily basis adds another little line of growth and essentially what it’s doing is it’s a diary of the life of that individual.”

The 6-foot tusk was found in 2010 by the Bureau of Land Management. When researchers got their hands on this giant wooly mammoth tusk, they decided to name it Kik, after the Kikiakarak River on the North Slope where they believe he died 17,000 years ago. Today, few details are known about the lives and journeys of these arctic wooly mammoths, so the team set to find out how they lived, what they ate and where they roamed by analyzing microscopic data points, or isotopes.

“So you and I both have diets, and we both drink water, and those things are made up of elements, like oxygen and hydrogen and water, or carbon and nitrogen in our food, and those elements have different isotope forms,” said Dr. Matthew Woller. “So carbon has a light stable isotope and a heavy stable isotope, and those are perfectly natural. They are in the environment. They create a signature of the things that we eat.”

Woller is a professor and the director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility at UAF.

“There’s a good phrase for isotope science, ‘you are what you eat,’ and in this case, you are what you eat, but you’re also where you eat as well,” he said.

The research shows this particular mammoth moved around significantly during part of the last Ice Age. The team said this mammoth covered enough of the Alaska landscape in its lifetime to circle the globe twice.

“17,000 years ago when this animal lived, much of Alaska was un-glaciated, and that’s often a surprise to people,” Druckenmiller said, “But this particular individual was living in an environment that was actually just a great place for mammoths and other grazers to live. It lived in these unglaciated portions of what we now call the Interior of Alaska, and also, where it eventually died and lived part of its life on the northside of the Brooks Range on what’s called the North Slope, which is also an unglaciated region of the state.”

The data points were also able to show researchers how this mammoth likely died after 28 years of life.

“One of the really interesting things we found was in the last year of its life, it actually shows some pretty distinctive signatures that are very characteristic of a mammal that dies from starvation, or experiences starvation,” Woller said.

Another interesting find, Woller noted, was this mammoth showed a pattern of behavior similar to what modern-day elephants display.

“There was a feature smack in the middle of this tusk, at about 15 or 16 years recorded in the tusk, where the mammoth seemed to change its movement behavior. A lot of its isotopes changed, and that seems to correspond with what we see in modern male elephants,” Woller said. “Sometimes they get to about middle-aged, or at least 15 or 16 years old, and they are encouraged to leave the heard by the matriarchal heard leaders.”

But it’s not only the history these researchers are interested in, according to Waller.

“I think our study also kind of helps shine a light on all the other concerns that we have for mammals that are living in the arctic today that are experiencing the need for changes in their behavior and movement in response to the arctic warming that we’re seeing today,” he said.

The Museum of the North at UAF has a wealth of mammoth tusks on hand. Researchers hope to learn even more by one day analyzing data from a female tusk and juvenile tusk that were found together.

“We have ongoing work at the University of Alaska Fairbanks where we’re trying to better understand the environment and the climate that these mammoths were moving around in as well,” Woller said. “And we do that by taking cores from lakes and permafrost. Things preserved in those lake sediments and date them, and we see what the vegetation was like, what the other animals were like that were present, so that’s part of the bigger puzzle too.”

Other institutions contributing to the study are Florida State University, Montanuniversität Leoben in Austria, Liaocheng University in China and the National Park Service.

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