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The Ecological implications of a Yakutian mammoth's last meal

  • Bas van Geel (a1), André Aptroot (a2), Claudia Baittinger (a3), Hilary H. Birks (a4), Ian D. Bull (a5), Hugh B. Cross (a6), Richard P. Evershed (a5), Barbara Gravendeel (a1) (a6), Erwin J.O. Kompanje (a7), Peter Kuperus (a1), Dick Mol (a8), Klaas G.J. Nierop (a1), Jan Peter Pals (a9), Alexei N. Tikhonov (a10), Guido van Reenen (a1) and Peter H. van Tienderen (a1)...

Part of a large male woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was preserved in permafrost in northern Yakutia. It was radiocarbon dated to ca. 18,50014C yr BP (ca. 22,500 cal yr BP). Dung from the lower intestine was subjected to a multiproxy array of microscopic, chemical, and molecular techniques to reconstruct the diet, the season of death, and the paleoenvironment. Pollen and plant macro-remains showed that grasses and sedges were the main food, with considerable amounts of dwarf willow twigs and a variety of herbs and mosses. Analyses of 110-bp fragments of the plastid rbcL gene amplified from DNA and of organic compounds supplemented the microscopic identifications. Fruit-bodies of dung-inhabiting Ascomycete fungi which develop after at least one week of exposure to air were found inside the intestine. Therefore the mammoth had eaten dung. It was probably mammoth dung as no bile acids were detected among the fecal biomarkers analysed. The plant assemblage and the presence of the first spring vessels of terminal tree-rings of dwarf willows indicated that the animal died in early spring. The mammoth lived in extensive cold treeless grassland vegetation interspersed with wetter, more productive meadows. The study demonstrated the paleoecological potential of several biochemical analytical techniques.

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