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Climate events let ice age mammoths pass far below the 40°N latitude

09 July 2009 Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum

Europe’s southern-most skeletal remains of Mammuthus primigenius were unearthed in a moor on the 37°N latitude. This is considerably south of the inhospitable habitat than one usually imagines for mammoths, and for the characteristically dry and cold climate that prevailed during the ice ages in the north of Eurasia.

The remains of the ice age giants from Padul were examined in a joint scientific project of four research institutions, namely, the Quaternary Paleontology arm of the Senckenberg Research Institutes of Germany, the Universities of Madrid and Oviedo in Spain, and the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam, the Netherlands. 

"These woolly mammoths finds do not belong to stray animals who only chanced to head south, but belonged to Granada's permanent inhabitants at this time”, says Diego Álvarez-Lao from the University of Oviedo. Dick Mol, ice age expert at the Natural History Museum of Rotterdam adds: “Nevertheless, the Spanish mammoths have not differed anatomically from their congeners in more northern regions.”

Climate- and environmental data show that it was not the longing for summery temperatures or the chirp of crickets that lured the ice age giants to the south, but a diet of grass, various herbs and shrubs. The expansion of the mammoth steppe with its typical vegetation allowed the wandering of the giants and other ice age animals below the 40° N latitude and far to the south.  

Nuria García from the University Complutense de Madrid explains: „Fossil plants which have been found in drill cores from scientific drilling in Spain and the nearby Mediterranean Sea, as well as our investigations of the Padul sediments indicate that the animals lived on the plants of the mammoth steppe.” 

Among the discoverers of Europe's southern-most finds is Senckenberg scientist Ralf-Dietrich Kahlke, who focused on the reasons that Mammuthus primigenius passed below the 40°N latitude. “A comparison with other sites between the 38°N and 36°N latitude shows that the animals pushed south 30 to 40 thousand years ago also in areas outside of Europe”, the ice age paleontologist explains and demonstrates with maps. Thus the southern-most sites of the ice age giants lie on a belt which stretches from Western Europe via Georgia, the Siberian Baikal region to eastern China and from Korea till the Midwest of America. 

Nevertheless the dispersal of the giants was blocked now and then. The impressively high Sierra Nevada at Padul formed a natural barrier. Likewise, the Rocky Mountains in North America had a similar effect. Other obstacles were areas that did not offer suitable food, as desert-like regions or the Grait Plains of North America which expanded on account of a vegetation change.

The present study documents for the first time the southerly push of Mammuthus primigenius in Europe and points out that their migration to southern Spain and Italy happened the same time as similar advances into eastern China, to the north of Japan and to Kamchatka. The team of scientists suggests that this phenomenon is related to coupled climate events in the northeast Atlantic and the northwest Pacific. Dr. Kahlke concludes: „This is proof that global mechanisms which regulated climate already during the ice age also influenced vegetation and with it also animal migration”. (dve)

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