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Tusk tests reveal woolly mammoth’s life journey

Yereth Rosen, August 15, 2021 2:30PM Reuters

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The scientists sliced open the preserved tusk to reveal the layers that were added as the animal grew. Picture: JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks media_cameraThe scientists sliced open the preserved tusk to reveal the layers that were added as the animal grew. Picture: JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks


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A woolly mammoth that roamed 17,000 years ago covered enough ground in its 28-year lifetime to almost circle the globe twice, analysis* of one of its tusks suggests.

The findings, detailed in a study published in the journal Science, show how the male mammoth went through infancy* and youth* as part of a herd, but died alone from starvation in mountains in the north of the US state of Alaska.

“This really is one of the very first insights into the life history of an Arctic* woolly mammoth,” said Matthew Wooller from the University of Alaska and co-lead author of the study of the now-extinct ancestor of the modern elephant.

media_cameraAn illustration of an adult male woolly mammoth in a mountain pass in Arctic Alaska 17,100 years ago. The image is produced from an original, life-size painting by artist James Havens, which is housed at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.

The mammoth’s movements were traced through analysis of chemical markers – called isotopes – in one of its well-preserved tusks.

To generate more than 400,000 data points for the study, the scientists sliced open the tusk, exposing the layers that were added as the animal grew.

Dr Wooller said those layers were like “ice cream cones stacked one inside of each other.”

media_cameraA close-up of the split mammoth tusk and the blue stain scientists used to reveal the growth lines. Picture: JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks/AFP

In its early years, the mammoth – named Kik by researchers after the river where its remains were found – moved around the area that is now the Lower Yukon River region in Alaska.

Though glaciers extended far south at the time, much of Alaska, including that region, had no glaciers, Dr Wooller said.

Instead, the region would have been low, flat grassland that was ideal for grazers* such as woolly mammoths.

“It was probably hanging out with the herd, with its mother and other members of the herd,” Dr Wooller said.

At age 15 or 16, the mammoth dramatically increased the distance of its travels, heading from time to time to points much farther north and higher in elevation.

It was likely the mammoth left the herd at this time, Dr Wooller said. He said its behaviour mirrored patterns in some modern elephant herds, in which maturing* males were “encouraged” to head off on their own.

In its later years, the mammoth roamed some routes that caribou* used today, Dr Wooller said.

He said it was possible the mammoth shared migration* paths with ancient caribou as it travelled seasonally to find food.

media_cameraDr Matthew Wooller has retraced the path travelled by a woolly mammoth by analysing the layers of its preserved tusk. Picture: JR Ancheta, University of Alaska Fairbanks/AFP

Its demise* likely came at the gravel bar* where its remains were found in 2010. Dr Wooller said the discovery of two tusks and a partial skull “gives us pretty good confidence that that’s where it died”.

The analysis of its tusk showed the mammoth was 28 years old when it died and probably starved in its final days.

“It looks like in its last year of life it slowed down to not much moving around,” Dr Wooller said. “We have kind of a smoking gun* of what killed it.”

Dr Wooller said the study did more than just satisfy curiosity about extinct Ice Age creatures. He said it was also relevant to species living in today’s rapidly changing Arctic environment.

“Our work helps shed a light on environmental concerns we have about modern animals like polar bears and caribou that live in the Arctic today,” he said.


  • analysis: detailed examination
  • infancy: time as a baby or young child
  • youth: time between childhood and adulthood
  • Arctic: region around the North Pole
  • grazers: animals that feed on grass
  • maturing: reaching the age of being fully grown
  • caribou: large North American reindeer
  • migration: seasonal movement of animals from one region to another
  • demise: death, end
  • gravel bar: an elevated area of gravel formed by the flow of a river
  • smoking gun: proof or evidence that something happened without actually seeing the event


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  1. How long ago did this woolly mammoth roam?
  2. In which US state did the woolly mammoth live?
  3. What part of the mammoth’s remains did scientists analyse to trace its movements?
  4. What age was the mammoth when is thought to have left the herd and started travelling much further?
  5. How old was the mammoth when it died?


1. Stages of life
In this news story, we learn about three distinct phases in Kik the woolly mammoth’s life. Fold or rule a sheet of paper into three sections. At the top of each section write a heading for each of the stages. Then draw a picture and write a sentence in each section that shows your understanding of how the mammoth lived during each stage.

Time: allow 30 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

2. Extension
Woolly mammoths had features that helped them to survive in Arctic conditions. Choose a current Arctic animal and identify three of its features that help it survive in the harsh Arctic environment.

Time: allow 15 minutes to complete this activity 
Curriculum Links: English; Science

Grammar and VCOP
The glossary of terms helps you to understand and learn the ambitious vocabulary being used in the article. Can you use the words outlined in the glossary to create new sentences? Challenge yourself to include other VCOP (vocabulary, connectives, openers and punctuation) elements in your sentence/s.

Have another look through the article, can you find any other Wow Words not outlined in the glossary?

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