Did a Flower Shortage Kill the Woolly Mammoth?

Or did a mammoth shortage kill the flowers?

By Matt Cantor,  Newser Staff

Posted Feb 8, 2014 7:36 AM CST

(Newser) – Scary as they might have looked, woolly mammoths had a decidedly non-threatening diet: They feasted on small flowers, according to a new theory. And the decline of these once-abundant plants, called forbs, may explain the disappearance of the mammoths themselves, NPR reports. Experts had believed woolly mammoths ate grass, but researchers in Denmark are questioning that theory. Their analysis of ancient, frozen soil from northern Russia, Canada, and Alaska suggests that forbs were all over the place. "I'm pretty sure it would have been a beautiful landscape because of all these flowering plants," says the author of the study in Nature.

His team also investigated the stomach contents and excrement of frozen woolly mammoths. They concluded that "the dominant source food that these animals were eating were in fact the flowering plants and not so much the grasses," says author Eske Willerslev. Forbs may have provided essential protein and been more digestible than grass, he tells National Geographic. Climate change at the end of the last Ice Age likely doomed the flowers, which in turn would have spelled disaster for the mammoths. Or vice versa, notes a dissenting scientist to NPR: Mammoth poop may have fertilized the flowers, so perhaps the mammoths' decline (sped along by early human hunters) helped wipe out the flowers. Either way, both disappeared about the same time. (In another prehistoric discovery, scientists spotted 800,000-year-old footprints in Britain.)

Woolly mammoths' biggest enemy may have been disappearing flowers.   (Shutterstock)
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