Western study sheds light on mystery of woolly mammoth diet
Published Wednesday, June 10, 2015 2:06PM EDT
Last Updated Wednesday, June 10, 2015 2:54PM EDT
A group of Western University scientists say they have - at least partly - solved a mammoth of a mystery.
There has been a long-standing debate about the woolly mammoth, since it was known to be a herbivore, but chemical analysis of its bones makes it look like a carnivore.
So what on earth did the ancient elephant actually eat?
In a new study published in Nature Scientific Reports, researchers analyzed the chemistry of bones and teeth of samples collected in the Yukon Territory and found mammoths had either a very distinct habitat or food source.
"Most previous studies looked at bulk proteins that are preserved in bones," explained graduate student Rachel Schwartz-Narbonne in a statement. "We took the proteins and separated them into individual amino acids, which gave us a lot more information than the bulk protein."
Another researcher is studying which possible food source could account for the high isotopic compositions of nitrogen.
But other hypotheses are that woolly mammoths livied in habitats that were extremely dry or they repeatedly travelled the same migration routes so the dung they left fertilized the plants they ate along the way.
Another possible explanation is that they may have used their feet and tusks to knock snow and ice away, allowing them to eat decayed plants below the winter cover that other animals couldn't reach.
"Woolly mammoths were keystone herbivores, which means that they helped to create the ecosystem in which they lived. But climate change might have caused their forage and habitat to degrade substantially, which ultimately may have caused their extinction. And their extinction could have led to the loss of the whole ecosystem," said Schwartz-Narbonne.
Understanding the interactions between prehistoric animals and their environment is critical to comprehending global issues like climate change and resource consumption now.