Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Mammoth Roamings

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Wildlife, Paleontology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Thanks to the curiosity of University of Alaska - Fairbanks isotope scientist, Matthew Wooler, much is known about a wooly mammoth named Kik. He was born ~ 17100 years ago in the area of Alaska that is now known as the "mammoth steppe". This area is shown on a map accompanying a story about Kik and how it has been possible to learn so much about him. It is by Richard Grant in Smithsonian Magazine (November 2023).

The map is at the bottom of the preceding link with a short story about Kik by Ted Scheinman. The map is by Haisam Hussein. The story and the map add some details not included in the story.

Grant reviews what prompted Wooler to do the study, the chemistry of isotopes and how they were used to answer Wooler's motivating question ("'Where does a mammoth move?"). Wooler "'compares a mammoth tusk to a diary written in ivory'"; how the tusk was selected, the challenge of "splitting the roughly 50-pound tusk (it is five-and-a-half feet long) in two," and how it was then treated for laboratory analysis. We also learn how Kik got his name.

Because it was known where he died, isotopic analysis could be used to travel his walks backwards. It was learned that at about age 16 "Kik broadened his range" and according to the researchers this is when he likely left the matriarchal herd "to wander alone or with other males, like a male elephant who has reached sexual maturity."
Details of Kik's final summer are known. It is likely that he was starving. Patrick Druckenmiller, a contributor to the study, explains. "When an animal starts to starve, it essentially eats its own body, and you get a very distinctive nitrogen spike." The analysis shows such a spike Kik was middle aged at his death (28 yo) based on "the average lifespan of an Arctic woolly mammoth (which) has been estimated at 60" yo.

The story of how the map of Kik's movements was created tells "how rodents' teeth offered the key mapping aid," one many of us would not have suspected

This story is also tells us of how scientists work and reason (including the use of good old common sense informed, I think, by some facts known about this group of mammals). And in terms of what's next, the Wooler group is "now analyzing another mammoth tusk...from the Alaskan interior, (likely) a female, about 19 years old, who lived around 14000 years ago". This is just before mammoths went extinct and "at a period when humans were on the landscape."
Kik faced some very dangerous predators; it is possible that this female faced another, new to her and other woolly mammoths: "us" as Grant writes. 

Quirks & Quarks, CBC News, Bob McDonald, devoted a segment (~ 8 m 30 s) to the travel tales told by an analysis of Kik's tusk. You may listen to the conversation here. It is the third one for which you must scroll down.

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