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Mammoth wipeout: new evidence from ancient animal 'graveyard'

By Olga Gertcyk
11 September 2015

Many prehistoric creatures craved salt and vital minerals missing from their diets due to abrupt climate change, suggests a new scientific expedition.

Ancient animal 'necropolis' in Novodubrovsky village in the north of Novosibirsk region conains Bones and teeth of ancient horses, woolly rhinos, and bison, as well as mammoths. Picture: Tomsk State University

A 10,000 year old animal 'necropolis' in Novodubrovsky village in the north of Novosibirsk region has given up fresh proof that the woolly mammoth became extinct because of bone disease triggered by lack of calcium.

It now appears that other species - namely the woolly rhinoceros and extinct types of ancient horse and bison - suffered the same fate in this period, too, possibly alongside the threat from hunting by early man.

The theory that osteoporosis was a significant cause of the extinction of the woolly mammoth has been proposed already by leading Siberian paleontologist Sergey Leshchinsky after the study of tens of thousands of ancient bones riddled with the disease. 

Now in two expeditions this summer, the scientist from Tomsk State University has collected striking additional evidence from the new 'graveyard', on the site of an ancient 'salt lick' or 'mineral lick', a source of vital calcium and other minerals seen as lacking in grass and other foods as well as water some 10,000 years ago. 

Bones and teeth of ancient horses, woolly rhinos, and bison, as well as mammoths, along with predators such as wolves and remains of birds of prey - notably eagles or owls - and other animals have been found during the Novodubrovsky excavation.

New ancient remains


New ancient remains


New ancient remains


New ancient remains

In two expeditions this summer, the scientist from Tomsk State University has collected striking additional evidence from the new 'graveyard', on the site of an ancient 'salt lick' or 'mineral lick'. Pictures: Tomsk State University

'The congregation of paleontological remains in this area can be explained by the fact that there were salt licks that local animals liked,' he said. 'Large herbivorous mammals would come here to lie in the mud and eat some clay with particular mineral components. At the same time, they trampled on the bones of their dead peers in the viscous substrate.'

The site was akin to an ancient animal health spa: yet many perished here, perhaps from the conditions which made them seek mineral infusions, or because they became stuck in the clay, or due to attacks by predators at this site. Remains of rodents were found, too.

The scientist says this 'salt-lick' was 'a refugium for large mammals at the end of the Pleistocene era... one of the last places where were living representatives of the mammoth fauna, when, on most of the continent, they had already become extinct. We would like to understand why.' This site may have been 'one of the last mammoth steppe ecosystems' in mainland Siberia.

Natural salt licks are gathering places for a variety of animals that make their way due to the cravings of their bodies, especially during harsh winters, it is believed. Salt is required for the development and maintenance of bones, muscles, circulatory systems and the nervous systems. It comprises sodium and chloride but carries trace minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and selenium.

According to Dr Leshchinsky's theory, a dramatic change in the ecosystem disrupted the traditional sources of these minerals. The scientist has spent more than a decade examining 23,500 bones and teeth belonging to the woolly mammoth, and found almost every one had traces of osteoporosis, as disclosed in publications in 2014 and earlier in 2015.

Mammoths bone decease


Mammoths bone decease


Mammoths bone decease

Dr Leshchinsky has spent more than a decade examining 23,500 bones and teeth belonging to the woolly mammoth, and found almost every one had traces of osteoporosis Pictures: Sergey Leshchinsky

He concluded that climate change and associated geological processes affected the chemical composition of soil and water in the mammoths' habitat, and led to them suffering from chronic mineral shortages. That in turn, he said, resulted in them often breaking their limbs and spines, left them open to predators and caused them problems simply surviving.

'The articular surfaces of the limb bones in some specimens are not just damaged, they are mutilated with disease,' said Dr Leshchinsky,  head of the laboratory of the Mesozoic and Cenozoic continental eco-systems at Tomsk State University.

'As for osteoporosis, in some collections that we examined almost 100 per cent of bones had signs of it. Obviously, this led to a high traumatism among animals, such as sprains and fractures because of the smallest loads. Mammoths with damaged limbs or spines could not find food in sufficient quantities and lost the ability to follow the herd. Those who lagged behind the herd quickly became the prey of predators.'

It has been established that the mass death of mammoths began about 20,000 to 24,000 years ago. The process continued for a long time and had a pronounced second wave of extinctions that occurred 13,000 to 15,000 years ago. The last major wave of deaths occurred about 9,000 to 12,000 years ago although there is evidence they survived in smaller groups near Alaska and at Wrangel Island, in the Russian Arctic, as recent as 3,700 years ago.

Mammoths bone decease


Mammoths bone decease


Mammoths bones decease

Dr Leshchinsky concluded that climate change and associated geological processes affected the chemical composition of soil and water in the mammoths' habitat, and led to them suffering from chronic mineral shortages. Pictures: Tomsk State University, Sergey Leshchinsky

Dr Leshchinsky conducted large-scale research on mammoth bones between 2003 and 2013, before writing his conclusions in the September 2014 issue of the Archaeological and Anthropological Sciences journal.

Among sites he examined previously were Shestakovo-Kochegur (Kemerovo region), Volchya Griva (Novosibirsk region), Lugovskoye (Khanty-Mansi Autonomous District), Gari (Sverdlovsk region, Urals), Berelyokh (Yakutia), Krasnoyarskaya Kurya (Krasnoyarsk region), Krakow Spadzista Street (Poland), Predmosti, Dolni Vestonice, and Milovice (Czech Republic). He believes the cause of the deaths was a metabolic disorder caused by mineral starvation, and provoked by the drastic environmental changes. 

'The transformation of the geochemical landscapes made the large part of Northern Eurasia extremely unfavourable for the existence of megafauna and mammoths in particular,' he said.

It is thought that mammoths that lacked calcium tried to make up for their mineral shortfall by eating clay on the waterfronts or in mud baths, yet this was not enough to save them.

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