A University of Alaska Fairbanks scientist wants to find out when the last woolly mammoth fell to the grass in Alaska. He’s seeking help from an unusual source: people like you.
Matthew Wooller was walking on a beach in Florida last winter with his wife and two children when the idea of adopting a mammoth hit him.
His plan includes 1,500 mammoth bones, teeth and tusks housed in Fairbanks at the UA Museum of the North. Donated by explorer Otto Geist and many gold miners over the past 100 years, the remains of the mammoth are a treasure that would become much more useful to scientists if they knew when the animals were alive.
Why not – Wooller told his wife, Diane O’Brien, as they strolled the beach – ask people if they would pay to radiocarbon date one or more of those bones? In doing so, they can help scientists determine when the woolly mammoth disappeared from the Alaskan mainland. The person with the newest fossil wins!
O’Brien, director of UAF’s Arctic Biology Institute, liked the idea. Crowdsourcing is an unconventional way to do science, but think of all the funding agency pressure you’d avoid. Plus, the mammoths are fun, and so are the races.
Before the details, a little more about what the contest can do for our knowledge of an iconic creature.
Of all the animals that once walked the planet but no longer do, the woolly mammoth is one we can almost smell.
Their bones have turned into frozen ground throughout the north; A baby mammoth rescued from a Yukon gold miner in the summer of 2022 looks like it will wake up from its resting place on a blue tarp.
Giant relatives of African and Asian elephants – but tough, with longer, curvier tusks and smaller ears – woolly mammoths are a symbol of the far north that disappeared not so long ago.
The newest mammoth fossils, found on Wrangel Island in northern Siberia, are from animals that were alive 3,700 years ago. This was when Queen Hatshepsut ruled as pharaoh in Egypt.
The mammoths of Wrangel Island were isolated from the Egyptians and other people by the great distance and icy desert. They are – as far as we know – the last woolly mammoths, which ranged as far south as at least Mexico.
About a decade ago, researchers, including Wooller, discovered that mammoths on the island of St. Paul of Alaska lived until about 5600 years ago. Those island mammoths appear to have lasted more than 5,000 years longer than other Alaskan mammoths.
“How Young Is the Newest Mammoth Fossil from the Alaskan Mainland?” Wooller is surprised.
In the museum’s drawers and shelves are 1,500 undated bones, teeth and tufts that may help answer that question.
The youngest dated mammoth fossil from central Alaska is one discovered near Chicken, Alaska, which is about 11,600 years old. That animal could have set eyes on the humans whose shadows appeared on the horizon from the direction of Asia.
But were mammoths alive in Alaska after he died? If they were, it would extend the period of overlap between mammoths and humans, and challenge the idea that we were responsible for the mammoths’ demise by hunting them all.
“A larger (time) gap would help minimize this hypothesis,” Wooller said.
Adopt a Mammoth will allow anyone who donates the $350 radiocarbon dating fee to get a digital photo of the mammoth’s trunk, femur, or whatever part it happens to be. The scientists will then remove a collagen sample and send it to a carbon recognition laboratory in California. Mammoth adopters will receive results on their pet’s age as soon as the scientists do.
This date will include the sponsor in the junior race. The winner will receive a trophy, as well as have their photo displayed on a plaque at the Museum of the North during the announcement period. The winner can also get the pleasure of helping to discover when the last woolly mammoth roared across the northern grasslands.