The mileage on Woolly Mammoths is amazing.

     Scientists have analysed the chemistry locked inside the tusk of a woolly mammoth to work out how far it travelled in its lifetime. The research shows that the Ice Age animal travelled a distance equivalent to circling the Earth twice, although its range was restricted by oceans.

     Woolly mammoths roamed northern latitudes during the prehistoric cold period known as the Pleistocene Age.

     A recent study of mammoth tusks has revealed how incredibly mobile these ancient creatures were.

     “It’s not clear-cut if it was a seasonal migrator, but it covered some serious ground,” said co-lead author of the study Dr. Matthew Wooller, from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The remains of the one we examined showed, “It visited many parts of Alaska at some point during its lifetime, which is pretty amazing when you think about how big that area is.”

     Mammoth tusks are apparently a little like tree rings, insomuch that they contain information about the animal’s life history. Furthermore, some chemical elements incorporated into the tusks while the animal was alive can serve as pins on a map, broadly showing where the animal went.

By combining these two things, the researchers worked out the travel history of a male mammoth that lived 17,000 years ago in Alaska. Its remains were found near the northern state’s Brooks Range of mountains.

     “From the moment they’re born until the day they die, they’ve got a built-in diary, and it’s written in their tusks,” said co-author Dr. Pat Druckenmiller, director of the University of Alaska’s Museum of the North. “Mother Nature doesn’t usually offer up such a convenient and life-long record of an individual’s life.”

     Apparently, mammoths steadily added new layers to their tusks throughout their lives. When the ivory was split length-wise, these growth bands looked like stacked ice cream cones, offering a chronological record of its existence.

     The researchers pieced together the animal’s journey by studying the different types, or isotopes, of the chemical elements strontium and oxygen contained in the 1.5m-long tusk. These were matched with maps predicting isotope variations across Alaska. They found that the mammoth had covered 70,000km of Alaskan landscape during its 28 years on the planet: The circumference of the Earth is 40,000km. The mileage on Woolly Mammoths is amazing.

     The study also offers clues to the extinction of these magnificent creatures. For animals that ranged so widely, the encroachment of forests into the mammoths’ preferred grassland habitat towards the end of the last Ice Age would have placed pressure on herds. It limited how far they could roam for food and water, and placed them at greater risk from predators.

     The investigation of the mammoth tusk was carried out by an international team, and has been published in Science journal.

     Mammoths have always captured human imagination, including mine, and I look forward to the results of the recent experiments that are attempting to re-create mammoths through their DNA, using their cousins, today’s elephants as surrogates. If they can successfully clone “Dolly” the sheep, why not a mammoth?

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