When did mammoths go extinct?
Woolly mammoths roamed North America, Europe, Asia and Beringia. When the last Ice Age ended, around 11,650 years ago, their population went into decline.
Extinction came in stages. By 10,500 years ago they’d vanished from the continental mainlands. But small populations survived on two islands: St Paul in the Bering Sea and Wrangel in the Arctic Sea.
The St Paul mammoths lived until 5,600 years ago. On Wrangel Island they survived longer, finally dying out 4,000 years ago.
Inbreeding killed off the last mammoths
Studies of the Wrangel Island mammoths suggest they died out because the population was too small. It simply wasn’t genetically viable. There were only 300 to 500 individuals.
For inbreeding to be avoided, they needed a population of at least 1,000. That was never possible, as the island only had capacity for up to 800 mammoths.
In 2019 scientists compared Wrangel Island mammoth DNA with the DNA of mainland mammoths and the DNA of modern elephants. They found mutations in the Wrangel DNA that weren’t present in the other samples.
The scientists carried out further research to predict the harmfulness of the mutations. This included looking at diseases in other species.
Finally, they concluded that the mutations affected balance and coordination, male fertility, insulin and the ability to smell flowers.
Not being able to detect floral fragrances would have interfered with the mammoths’ ability to find food.
Scientists don’t know how widespread these mutations were. The small population size suggests that the mutations were a major problem.