Did Hunting Mammoths To Extinction Kick Off Climate Change?

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During a recent family YouTube binge, we came across something I didn’t expect: emerging evidence that humans caused sweeping climate change far earlier than I thought. For most people interested in climate change, it all started with the industrial revolution, but that’s only when it went into overdrive. Prior to that time, the rise of agriculture, mass deforestation, and the destruction of native species led to smaller but still significant changes to the climate.

What we think of as the natural world sometimes isn’t very natural at all. For example, large swaths of southwest deserts are now dustbowls, but even 100 years ago, there were large areas of grassland. Displacing the existing hooved animals with a major invasion of overgrazing cattle destroyed some of the best carbon sinks around.

But, long before the (somewhat mythical) days of cowboys and Indians, humans caused devastation on a much more massive scale around the world. It was this prehistoric and even pre-agriculture devastation that I found out more about in this video: (article continues below)

The idea of “the ice age” is often misunderstood. What most people call an ice age ended around 12,000 years ago, but going further back, there were dozens of these periods where glaciers grew far further south than they do today. But, even between these glacial periods (the correct term to use), the ice never fully disappeared. The truth is that the real ice age has been going on for around 2.5 million years, and we’re still technically in the ice age. We’re just in a nice, comfy “interglacial period” that scientists aren’t 100% sure will end.

The popular story on mammoths were that they evolved for the glacial environment, and that today’s interglacial is just too warm for them to survive in. But, mammoths survived a bunch of these warm periods in the past and never died off, so we have to ask ourselves why it was different this time.

The video makes a pretty good case for the overhunting hypothesis. Everywhere that humans went, mass extinction of megafauna was sure to go, and that fact is well-established. It appears that the hunting and gathering life was so good that humans never embraced agriculture (even during past warm periods) despite possible knowledge to do so. Why work for months to get some grain when you could just go kill the big thing over there? But, Africa’s large mammals evolved alongside humans, and knew to be very afraid of us because our ancestors were amazing hunters, despite being shrimpy and somewhat slow.

What changed more when humans left Africa was that the big game in other places never saw it coming. Instead of knowing to be afraid of the little naked apes, they didn’t see our ancestors as a threat, and didn’t defend themselves. It’s a bit like what humor writer Jack Handey said: “I can picture in my mind a world without war, a world without hate. And I can picture us attacking that world, because they’d never expect it.”

But, what our ancestors didn’t know was that the mammoths had a very important job: maintaining the steppe. Like modern-day elephants, mammoths loved knocking down trees to eat the roots and the leaves. They were also very good at keeping moss out of an area, because they’d crush the moss. Another thing they did quite well was compact the snowfall into a less insulating form, which helped promote the preservation and spread of permafrost.

When a combination of a less-favorable climate and overhunting drove the large beasts to extinction (outside of a few isolated islands), the forests were able to spread into the grasslands, and deep snowfall rather counterintuitively destroyed the permafrost by blanketing it in air pockets that the mammoths and hooved creatures used to smash the air out of.

The worst thing to come out of all this was the release of stored methane, a process that continues today, and the reduction of carbon st0rage in the grasslands. Add to that deforestation further south and rice farming in Asia, and we got climate change off to a very good start.

Do keep in mind that I’m just a student of journalism, history, and emergency management, and that climate scientists are still debating all of the above, but the video does make a pretty good case that we need more grasslands and steppe in northern Eurasia, and that to get there, we need megafauna to be out there stomping and toppling invading trees. But, this is obviously only something we should do on top of other climate change prevention, especially when it comes to curbing the use of fossil fuels. Restoring these lands is only part of the solution, and not a substitute for everything else we write about here!

But Should We Bring Mammoths Back?

The efforts of Pleistocene Park are definitely good, and something we need more of. Reintroducing extant species into the area and working to preserve and expand the steppe is a good idea. But, the question of whether we should bring an extinct species back (or something a lot like them) is another question entirely.

One big thing in favor of it is that the death of the species wasn’t natural. Whether in whole or in great part, human overhunting was definitely a contributor to their demise. These aren’t T-Rex or Utahraptors that died a natural death or evolved to become birds over tens of millions of years. This is a species that had survived past interglacial periods repeatedly, only to be pushed (sometimes literally) over the edge by our ancestors.

But, knowing that our uninformed and hungry ancestors did this and what the consequences were doesn’t mean we’re perfectly informed. A lot happens in 10,000 years, and the changes that have occurred in the former mammoth steppes have been underway for all of that time. Knocking invasive trees down and putting the mammoths back to keep them at bay might not go like we predicted. There will very likely be unintended consequences when we displace 10,000 year old forests and species, even if they shouldn’t be there.

If cloning were used to bring mammoth-like animals back to the steppes, it should be done slowly.

Featured Image: Ice Age Fauna of Northern Spain by Mauricio Antón. CC-BY 2.5 License.

 


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