What Killed the Mammoths?
According to Ross MacPhee, Chairman of the Department of Mammalogy of the American Museum of Natural History, mammoths should still be around. "If you gave 'em a shave, they're very much like a modern elephant," MacPhee points out. "These guys are incredibly buffered against extinction."
Yet die out they did, as part of a puzzling extinction event during the late Quaternary period which claimed hundred of other large mammal species, including the sabre-toothed tiger and the Irish giant deer. None of the possible causes satisfied MacPhee, until he was struck by a sudden insight: that the only thing capable of causing extinctions of this type and scale was a highly lethal infectious disease.
This summer MacPhee and colleagues collected woolly mammoth remains on Siberia's Wrangel Island, where the animals survived on longer than anywhere else on earth. Alex Greenwood is now working to recover genetic information from these bone samples in the Museum's laboratory. The next step is to try and isolate the DNA of the infectious agent--the hyperdisease itself.