Study: Humans Played Significant Role in Extinction of Woolly Mammoths

Friday, November 12, 2021

Fordham et al. revealed a 20,000-year pathway to the extinction of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). Image credit: Mauricio Anton.

New research shows that the role of humans in the extinction dynamics of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) began well before the Holocene epoch, which started 11,700 years ago.

“Our research shows that humans were a crucial and chronic driver of population declines of woolly mammoths, having an essential role in the timing and location of their extinction,” said Dr. Damien Fordham, a researcher in the Environment Institute and the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide and the Center for Macroecology, Evolution, and Climate at the GLOBE Institute at the University of Copenhagen.

“Using computer models, fossils and ancient DNA we have identified the very mechanisms and threats that were integral in the initial decline and later extinction of the woolly mammoth.”

Signatures of past changes in the distribution and demography of woolly mammoths identified from fossils and ancient DNA show that people hastened the extinction of these ancient creatures by up to 4,000 years in some regions.

“We know that humans exploited woolly mammoths for meat, skins, bones and ivory,” Dr. Fordham said.

“However, until now it has been difficult to disentangle the exact roles that climate warming and human hunting had on its extinction.”

The study also shows that woolly mammoths are likely to have survived in the Arctic for thousands of years longer than previously thought, existing in small areas of habitat with suitable climatic conditions and low densities of humans.

“Our finding of long-term persistence in Eurasia independently confirms recently published environmental DNA evidence that shows that woolly mammoths were roaming around Siberia 5,000 years ago,” said Dr. Jeremey Austin, a researcher in the Environment Institute and the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Adelaide.

“Our analyses strengthens and better resolves the case for human impacts as a driver of population declines and range collapses of megafauna in Eurasia during the Late Pleistocene.”

“It also refutes a prevalent theory that climate change alone decimated woolly mammoth populations and that the role of humans was limited to hunters delivering the coup de grâce.”

“And shows that species extinctions are usually the result of complex interactions between threatening processes.”

“The pathway to extinction for the woolly mammoth was long and lasting, starting many millennia before the final extinction event.”

The findings were published in the journal Ecological Letters.


Damien A. Fordham et al. Process-explicit models reveal pathway to extinction for woolly mammoth using pattern-oriented validation. Ecological Letters, published online November 5, 2021; doi: 10.1111/ele.13911