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What the emerging woolly mammoth tusk says about our planet

The internet is going crazy over a mammoth tusk found poking out of an Alaskan riverbank, but is its emergence a warning sign for humanity?

Pessimism isn’t my forte, but when age old specimens previously hidden inside frost and within rocks suddenly become visible to the naked eye – the climate concern bell in my brain starts ringing.

Researchers from the University of Alaska’s Sanctuary Lab were on a mission to measure exactly that – the impact of climate change in their local protected areas – when they spotted a unique looking object sticking out from a riverbed.

They soon realised it was the ivory tusk of a woolly mammoth. Researchers tweeted their amazement, saying ‘you can almost touch the Pleistocene’ which, in layman’s terms, is the geohistorical period in which these animals roamed the Earth.

The tusk’s emergence is a result of continued erosion of the surrounding land. A net was swiftly placed below, to catch it when the riverbank inevitably wares further, dislodging it from its current position.

Considering that the tusk has only emerged in the last year or so, it is clear the landscape is being rapidly degraded by the rising river. It suggests we are at the cusp (or beginning) of a major environmental and geological shift, one that certainly has consequences for the course of human life.

Credit: Adrienne Ghaly / Twitter

What can we learn from mammoths?

Woolly mammoths have been extinct for about 4,000 years. They were about the same size as their closest living relatives, elephants, but better adapted to harsh icy conditions thanks to their multi-layered and length fur.

A warming planet and presumed over-poaching by prehistoric humans during the end of the Ice Age is believed to have caused them to die off. Sound familiar, yet?

Declining populations and a lack of suitable mates meant the last woolly mammoths weren’t living so pleasantly. They suffered from genetic diseases, ill health, and mutations like loss of hearing and atypically shiny hair according to DNA analysis.

Scientists worry that a similar scenario could take place for endangered animals today, like Asia’s cheetahs and the Congo’s mountain gorillas. Learning from mammoth tales, we’d do well to ensure that these species and their environments are protected – which might just prevent them sharing a similar fate.

On top of this, mammoth tusks reveal a ton of data about their lives. The tip of the tusk marks the beginning of the animal’s life, and the internal layered rings paint a picture akin to trees rings.

Measuring the chemical isotopes within tusks can help scientists determine how much a mammoth walked – and where they went. Observing the tusks of a 17,000-year-old mammoth, scientists concluded that the creature had circumnavigated the Earth twice.

Even these tough, formidable creatures couldn’t cope with the pressure of a drastically warmer environment. Bear in mind this was well before CO2, methane, and other human-induced emissions were playing a part in speeding up the process.

Credit: E&T

What do these discoveries say about our planet?

Though uncovering the remains of mammoth is a frequent occurrence in Alaska, which was declared a fossil state for this reason, the noticeably changing landscape leading to the recent revelation is alarming.

At risk of sounding ominous, the factors that caused mammoths to disappear (rapid planetary heating!) shares parallels to the moment humans are witnessing today.

As evidence of global ecosystems collapsing due to climate change continues mounting, is it possible that we are straddling the starting line of a sixth mass extinction event? A ton of palaeontologists seem to believe so.

Still, they reassure it’s not too late, as mass extinctions usually occur over the course of millions of years. They point to the Paris Agreement, future COP events, and UN Ocean Conferences as key opportunities to find solutions for slowing our contribution to this historically natural process.

Any hesitancy to act on feasible plans for preventative action could see us shaping a future where the next age of intelligent beings discovers the remains of today’s creatures and attempts to map our lives – and our demise.

Just like we’re doing with woolly mammoths today.


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