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Extinct Mammoths Offer an Environmental Lesson for the Future

Scientists from around the world converged on Hot Springs, South Dakota, last month for the second International World of Elephants Congress. The four-day conference gave those engaged in research on elephants, mammoths, mastodons and related fauna of the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs the opportunity to gather and explore the relevance of their prehistoric research in today's world.

Hot Springs offers a window on the past. More than 50 mammoths slid into a submerged pond here some 26,000 years ago to drink some water. Unable to climb out of the steep sinkhole depression, they died there.

The area eventually filled with sediment that protected the animals' remains until 1974, when a construction crew uncovered their preserved bones. Today, the Mammoth Site, as it's now known, attracts tourists, school groups and scientists.

Paleontologist Eileen Johnson, from Texas Tech University, is one of those who came for the "World of Elephants" Congress. "Everybody who is here is interested in Proboscidea, whether they're modern elephants or all of the various types of ancient ones. But it does allow people from around the world to come together that have different perspectives and different interests and to talk about them."

Proboscideans include elephants as well as mammoths, their ancient ancestors who first appeared about 4 million years ago in Africa, and spread to Europe and Asia. They migrated across the Bering Strait to North America about 1.8 million years ago.

Professor Johnson notes that a good portion of the four-day conference centered on discussion of what happened to all those ancient elephants, adding not everyone at the conference was in agreement, "We're all going in a fairly uniform direction," she says, "but within that we've got lots of different directions that cross over, and some of them sort of go head-to-head."

According to Ms. Johnson, expert theories about the extinction of the mammals tend to group around two possible causes: climate … and our ancestors. "There are people at the conference, myself included, that are more in the climate/biological realm," she says. "There are some people who think it is solely people. And then there are others who are kind of in-between. And I might be convinced to be almost in-between. I think people may have killed off the last few or had a role in the very end, but I don't think they were the cause. So, some of the papers here have actually addressed that issue in a variety of ways. She says there's so much data coming out now, it's hard for researchers to absorb it all, or even know about all of it."

Russian scientist Alexei Tikhonov feels it's vital to understand why these massive creatures are no longer here, regardless of how they went extinct. "All organisms, even bacteria, micro-organisms, insects, all of them, they're connected with these giants. Because these giants, they can change the landscapes. They can change the environment," he says.

As an example, he points to the African savannah. "See how the African elephants keep this savannah in these conditions. Of course, if we destroyed all elephants, for example, in Africa, we'd lose these landscapes, because nobody can keep the savannah in the same condition," he says. "And, of course, in the forests there are dozens and dozens of mammal species, hundreds of billed species and thousands of insects for example. They [would] disappear, because there [would be] no habitats for them, in this case."

Alexei Tikhonov says, in short, a reduction in the elephant population can impact the whole world. Eileen Johnson agrees that it's important to investigate the past to protect the world for the future. "What we're dealing with in the past, particularly when you look at the question of extinction, is the destruction of habitats, the impact that has on biodiversity," she says. "Those are major issues today. And there's a lot that can be learned between the present and the past."

Scientists who study how mammoths died out hope their research may shed some light on the complex relationship among the environment, humans, and other animals today.