The Wooly Mammoth is one of our favorite extinct animals to ponder and attempt to bring back to life. But what killed them off in the first place? Researchers think that the mighty beasts may have been bested by tiny flowers—or, more precisely, the lack of them.
A new study of the DNA in frozen mammoth poop suggest that the big furry animals ate plants, specifically little flowers known as “forbs.” In fact, looking at the DNA in the mammoth poop samples, researchers have come to think that woolly mammoths really, really liked eating forbs. Geoff Brumfiel at NPR spoke with Eske Willerslev, the researcher leading the study:
"To our surprise it turned out that the dominant source food that these animals were eating were in fact the flowering plants and not so much the grasses that everyone thought was so important," he says.
In fact, Willerslev thinks the beasts needed the flowers to survive. That's why, when the flowers disappeared around 25,000 years ago, the mammoths and rhinos disappeared, too. "The vegetation change could have most likely been pretty devastating," he says.
The flower extinction story is a compelling one, but Brumfield points out that there are other explanations out there as well. While scientists agree that the forbs and the mammoths disappeared at the same time, the chain of events could have been the opposite: perhaps the flowers needed the mammoth poop in order to grow. Without the fertilizer, the forbs died away. And then there’s the fact that humans had a penchant for hunting mammoths and could have hunted them to extinction, with or without flowers.