From a fossilized tusk, UAF researchers unraveled the life story of a woolly mammoth

Mat Wooller with mammoth tusks (JR Ancheta/University of Alaska Fairbanks)

A new University of Alaska Fairbanks study featured on the cover of the journal Science explores the life story of a woolly mammoth that lived 17,000 years ago.

Thousands of years ago, a woolly mammoth that researchers have named Kik lumbered across what is now the state of Alaska. There were times when he stayed in one area, likely in a group with other mammoths.

At one point Kik took off on a long trip, covering great distances of icy landscape. Researchers think that means he left his mother’s herd and struck out on his own. At 28 years old Kik, died above the Arctic Circle, likely of starvation.

“It was kind of like watching this soap opera of this mammoth’s life kind of emerge in front of our eyes real time,” said lead researcher Mat Wooller, who directs the stable isotope facility at UAF.

How could researchers uncover such detail about the life of a long-dead animal? They used information stored in Kik’s fossilized tusk to learn about his life. The first step was figuring out how to cut the tusk down its center.

“It took us an entire day to split it, and six people and a very large band saw. You don’t want to destroy a fossil like this,” Wooller said.

Then researchers chemically analyzed each section of the tusk.

“This is the young mammoth, here,” Wooller said, showing off the tusk in his office. “You see this dark part here? This is what’s called the pulp cavity.”

The scientists found clues about Kik’s life in the isotopes in the fossil. Isotopes are different versions of atoms of a single element. When an animal eats or drinks, its body takes on the unique isotopes from the materials they ingest.

The character of those  isotopes depends on the location that food comes from.

“There’s a little phrase that goes with isotope science,” Wooller said. “You are what you eat. And you’re not just what you eat, you’re also where you eat.”

Parts of the body that grow longer over time — like hair, or in Kik’s case, tusks — serve as a record of what and where an animal ate and drank. Scientists matched the isotopes in Kik’s tusks with the isotopes present in different areas in Alaska to create a map of his life.

“It’s like a chemical GPS unit,” Wooller said.

Wooller said the study contributes to a large body of research about the reasons woolly mammoths went extinct. And Kik’s story could also hold answers about the future. That’s because changes in climate likely played a role in mammoths’ extinction.

“It’s also shining a light on our concerns for existing animals that live in the Arctic today and are facing very significant environmental change and climate change,” Wooller said.

Kik’s tusk will be displayed at the Museum of the North in Fairbanks, accompanied by a life-sized artistic rendering of the mammoth painted by paleo artist James Havens.

Wooller worked with the artist, so the painting reflects what the study uncovered about Kik’s life. In it, the mammoth stands enormous against an icy backdrop, staring at the viewer from deep in the past.

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