Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Mammoths in the news

A Spanish-German-Dutch research team has announced the discovery of the remains of four woolly mammoth skeletons in southern Spain. The location, Padul near Granada and about a hundred miles northwest of Gibraltar, is the furthest south woolly mammoth remains have been discovered in Europe.

Woolly mammoths, as opposed to their cousins the Colombian mammoths*, only lived in tundra regions close to the ice sheets and on the mammoth steppes immediately south of that. To get to Southern Spain, there would have had to have been an unbroken belt of steppe extending all the way across Spain. This is the most important aspect of the find, according to the team that excavated them; until now, there was no evidence that the mammoth steppe extended that far south. It means Southern Europe was colder during later part of the last ice age than we previously thought. The carbon dates for the mammoths, twenty-five to thirty-five thousand years old, also show that this climate wasn't just a short cold snap. An alternative theory is that the mammoths had timeshare vacation condos in Padul and were vacationing there when they died. So far, this theory has not garnered much support.

This is the second announcement this year that has made us need to adjust our models of the range mammoths in Europe. Last summer, a team in England dated some remains from Shropshire and discovered they came from seven thousand years later than any other find in Northwestern Europe. They believe that the find implies mammoths went extinct in that part of Europe during the Last Glacial Maximum and then returned to their old range several thousand years later. Taken together, the two finds reassert the main lesson of almost any area of academic study--it was a lot more complicated than we thought.

PS If someone with access to the Paleo 3 article wanted to send me a copy, I wouldn't complain.

PPS Two copies just popped into my mailbox at the same time. Thanks all.

* Colombian mammoths covered North America from the edge of the mammoth steppe into Central Mexico.

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