How Woolly Mammoths Worked

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Author's Note: How Woolly Mammoths Worked

Although the Pleistocene, with its climate wobbles and pulses of globe-spanning glaciation, might strike us as a fundamentally different sort of world than the one in which we live, the modern world is governed by the same forces and elements as the paleo. Now, as then, solar energy powers a complex, self-regulating climatological and ecological system that, though resilient, can rapidly collapse when pushed past a tipping point.

Whether mammoths were killed by hunters, by climate-driven starvation or some combination of the two is a question of much concern to their living cousins, the elephants, who once thundered across vast swaths of land and who today face human-driven habitat loss and poaching. The problem with tipping points is that they can move fast, have far-reaching impacts and quickly become virtually irreversible. The problem with allowing elephants to die, beyond the obvious tragedy, is that they are a keystone species in their ecosystems, potentially a kind of living tipping point. Their movements and activities create habitat for other animals and natural firebreaks, and their dung feeds numerous species, spreads seeds and provides soil nutrients. When an animal like that dies out, tipping point or not, it sends thunderous impacts throughout the ecosystem.

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