Chapter 1 // The Mammoth's Last Breath

I. Introduction

II. “The Hidden Rodent”

III. The Evolution of a Legend

IV. Lamarcky Marck and the Flunky Hunch

V. A Mammoth Discovery

VI. Big Bone Lick

VII. A Bone to Pick with Buffon

VIII. The Curious Case of North America’s Megafauna

IX. St. Paul & The Broken Bones

X. Manatees: Modern-Day Mammoths?

XI. Make Ecosystems Green Again

XII. Further Reading

 

I. Introduction

There's nothing quite like ambushing the last mammoth on Earth. So began the book I started writing months before the U.S. presidential election in 2016, a skeleton of a manuscript that formed the inspiration for this podcast, Age of Ecology. After the book’s opening line: “There’s nothing quite like ambushing the last mammoth on Earth”, the first chapter continued: “And not just because you don’t realize you’re doing it at the time. Rather, there’s some primordial part of us that longs for that most unringable of bells, The Kill. Freud claimed it stemmed from a lustful father and a band of banished brothers hell-bent on taking back their birthright of female mates in one cannibalistic coup. As with most topics, Freud was wrong.”

Around 100 pages into writing, I realized that the literary form the book was taking probably wouldn’t reach as many people as I’d hoped. Turns out, literary writing’s audience has dwindled over the years, to just 14 total people today, most of whom are located within five miles of Middlebury, Vermont. This wasn’t the route I thought best to convey the untold, sometimes-funny, often-poignant story of Earth’s relationship with its most prodigal offspring: us. On the other hand, podcasts are still in their formative years. Lore. Criminal. WWE Off the Script. They’ve all shaped 21st Century storytelling the way film began to shape storytelling over a century ago.

So began my journey to translate my writings into a more digestible, oral format. Almost like a return to the age of Homer, except with fewer animal sacrifices

In this first-ever chapter of Age of Ecology, we’ll explore the evolution, heyday, and extinction of North America’s largest-ever land mammal, the mammoth. Along the way, we’ll visit the Siberian tundra during the Renaissance; the fossil collection of one of the first American presidents, who may have gotten democracy right, but the processes in the natural world wrong; and the sun-dappled mangroves of modern-day Florida.  

 

II. “The Hidden Rodent”

If any particular location is inextricably intertwined with the history of the mammoths, it’s surely Siberia. From the site of Stone Age cave paintings, to unprecedented fossil discoveries by naturalists in the 1700s. Oh, and not to mention, modern-day scavenger hunts that see people blast away entire hillsides of permafrost with fire hoses in search of “ethical ivory” which can fetch thousands on the black market, that great bastion of verbose depressives, Russia, is ground zero for mammoths. Especially, the area known as Siberia.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's Favorite Podcast - Nature Blog - Cave Paintings

Long before naturalists began their speculations on the matter, the tribes of Siberia had developed a number of legends about the source of the huge tusks they’d unearthed over the years. One legend said the tusks belonged to giant, subterranean animals that died while burrowing to the surface. This legend migrated south from Siberia into China, where folklore described this underground creature that was known to tear up riverbanks as “the hidden rodent”, a rather understated nickname for an animal that supposedly stood 13 feet tall at the shoulder and weighed a cool 8 tons.

In the 1700s, as Europeans started to lug these tusks back to their observatories for their codpieced countrymen to ogle at, they devised their own spurious explanation of the species’ lineage. The Europeans explained that the tusks were part of the skeletons of the grass-eating behemoth monsters mentioned in the Book of Job. Bored aristocrats salivated over the tusks’ potential for jewelry. The rush was on.

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III. The Evolution of a Legend

Turns out, the tusks these native Siberians and naturalists had found once belonged to the most famous of all mammoth species, the woolly mammoth, close kin of the relatively small, furry Asian elephants, and a more distant cousin of creatures like the African elephants with their squeals of delight and the threatened West Indian manatees that drift in and out of Florida mangroves. But well before any of these modern-day species evolved, a hairless, tusked mound of flesh known as the South African mammoth grazed on African grass from the Cape of Good Hope in the south, to Ethiopia in the aeolian north.

This was a surprisingly recent five million years ago, around the same time that early canines started howling at the moon. From Africa, these early descendants of the mammoths dispersed across the Eurasian continent, picking beech trees clean of their toothed leaves and plowing them down as they trudged across the steep inclines and rugged mountains of modern-day Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Russia. Around a million years ago, the Earth’s temperature dropped sharply. Trees abandoned northern Europe as sheets of ice grew like colonies of yeast in sugar soup. The once-mild-mannered mammoth evolved with the frigid conditions in its new mansion of wilderness.

Auburn wool soon blanketed its formerly exposed flanks. Microbes took up residence in its gut, squeezing nutrients from the nutritional wasteland of the all-grass diet that a world of ice had imposed on the mammoths. (Recent findings even suggest mammoth calves ate their parents’ poop to encourage said microbial alchemists to stay a while in their own gut, one of nature’s many brilliant solutions to an otherwise stubborn issue.)

Fossils show that, by 200,000 years ago, a descendant of that original South African mammoth had developed the thick coat that would become the hallmark of the woolly species, along with the gnarled tusks that all the mammoths came to share. These tusks grew continually throughout mammoths’ lives and, like tree rings, can be studied to decipher a mammoth’s age of death and even events like the birthing of a new mammoth calf.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's Favorite Podcast - Nature Blog - Woolly Mammoth Sketch

At its heyday, the mammoth spread across much of the globe, thriving in locations as far as North and South America. A pygmy version of the mammoth just 6 feet tall even arose on California’s prehistoric Santa Rosae super-island (which has, with higher sea levels, been divided into Anacosta, San Miguel, Santa Cruz, and Santa Rosa Islands). But by 10,000 years ago, mammoth populations had plummeted until only a few groups remained in the entire world, most of them on the isolated Wrangel Island of northern Siberia and Alaska’s St. Paul Island. Eventually, these small, isolated populations likewise gave up the ghost, leaving prehistoric cultures with legends, and paleontologists with the riddle: what had snuff(leupagus)ed out the once-great mammoth?

 

IV. Lamarcky Marck and the Flunky Hunch

To answer that question, we must visit the echoing halls of science in 18th Century France, during the height of the bloody French Revolution. Surprisingly, almost no one in the 1700s believed animals could go extinct on a global scale -- certainly not priests, not philosophers, not even scientists. Such an extinction, scholars believed, would violate the prevailing view that Earth was governed by an iron law known as the Great Chain of Being.

A telling example is the great French naturalist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, one of the first scientists to study invertebrates with any sort of discipline, and the man responsible for coining the term “invertebrates”. Lamarck was born into a large noble family with a history of military service. Lamarck’s father pressed him into an ecclesiastical education, but as soon as his father had passed away, Lamarck quit the Jesuit college he was attending, bought a horse, and took up the military cloth, just like his ancestors had.

According to Lamarck’s daughter, during the Battle at Fissinghausen in the north of Germany, artillery fire had reduced his company to a mere fourteen men. Lacking an officer, one of the remaining soldiers in the company urged the diminutive, seventeen-year-old Lamarck to assume leadership and command a withdrawal from the field. Lamarck accepted his nomination. But, instead of withdrawing, he ordered the men to hold their line. This singular act of courage allegedly earned him a field officership straight away, for heroic and Lamarckable deeds, if you’ll forgive the pun. He soon became a lieutenant.

One afternoon during peacetime at a base in sunny Monaco on the Mediterranean, a rather hearty soldier betrayed mischief of spirit and density of mind by lifting the featherweight Lamarck by his head. Lamarck cried out in pain. The lymph nodes in his neck swelled like a pregnant appendix. He underwent the knife, but the surgery saw Lamarck lose pints of blood, and in the end, only made the condition worse. So ended the short, scrappy fief of Lamarck’s military service. He rejoined civilian life with a pittance for a pension and decided to pursue natural history.

A kerchief enthusiast with that rolled, rococo hairstyle of the aristocracy, Lamarck soon became a bank clerk in Paris. Shortly thereafter, he received an assignment as an aide at Paris’s Royal Garden, which afforded him the opportunity to study botany.

During the French Revolution over two decades later, Lamarck survived the guillotines, whose dull thud in executing Marie Antoinette at the Place de la Concorde could almost be heard from Lamarck’s post at the garden less than three miles away. In 1809, he went on to publish his controversial Philosophie Zoologique, in which he suggested life evolved over time. Fittingly, it was the same year that one Charles Darwin tumbled from the womb, clutching fish with strange feet.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's Favorite Podcast - Nature Blog - Marie Antoinette

Although the idea of evolution dated to the writings of Hippocrates and Aristotle, Lamarck was the first modern scholar to provide a cohesive theory of how evolution worked. And controversial it was. But not because Lamarck’s theory of evolution suggested that an animal’s use or disuse of its organs could affect the traits that its offspring inherited.

Wait, what? Can you say that in layman’s terms, please...

Lamarck had basically suggested that the child of a weightlifting champion will have larger muscles, because use and development of an organ by a parent could be passed on to a child. But that’s not why his theory was controversial. It was controversial for a much more basic reason: because it suggested evolution at all, going against the prevailing wisdom that species arose because of divine creation.

Lamarck’s anti-Creationist theory wasn’t just controversial to the Church, either. Well-known scientists of the day rejected the idea out-of-hand. Georges Cuvier -- best known as the “father of paleontology” -- openly disparaged Lamarck’s theory of evolution, writing that Lamarck’s system “may amuse the imagination of a poet; a metaphysician may derive from it an entirely new series of systems; but it cannot for a moment bear the examination of anyone who has dissected a hand, a viscus, or even a feather.”

Cuvier’s reputation was such that few naturalists dared to challenge him. One of the few who did, our man Lamarck, died in such poverty that his estate could only afford a rented grave, after which his remains were removed and are still missing today. But even such a noteworthy contrarian as Lamarck believed that species only disappeared as a result of them evolving to more complex forms, never from extinction.

 

V. A Mammoth Discovery

Unlike entropy, pig-headedness amongst these early paleontologists flowed both ways. For just as Cuvier adamantly opposed Lamarck’s theory that organisms evolved which later turned out to be true, Lamarck vehemently dismissed Cuvier’s theory that organisms could go extinct, a theory that Cuvier later proved indisputably with evidence from, what else? Mammoth fossils. (And mastodon fossils. But who’s counting.) It was, dare we say, a mammoth discovery.

As with Lamarck’s theory of evolution, Cuvier’s theory of extinction contained errors that today seem elementary, but are actually quite justifiable in light of the technological constraints of the day. For example, Cuvier believed that the sudden disappearance from the fossil record of fossils for entire species was a result of massive floods that occasionally plagued the Earth -- perhaps even floods of Biblical proportions, although he didn’t explicitly uncork the dike on that one. His theory became known as Catastrophism. Today, we know many of these fossil disappearances are most likely attributable to massive asteroid impacts, rather than floods.

 

VI. Big Bone Lick

The legacy of these two early 19th century scientists rightly lives on today in histories of science and well-cited Wikipedia entries. But their fame pales in comparison to one of their contemporaries, a rosy-cheeked pastoralist politician from the nascent United States, who sided with Lamarck in believing that species couldn’t go extinct. A noted wine enthusiast, the man who ultimately defended an incorrect view of extinction in his book Notes on the State of Virginia is none other than the third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's Favorite Podcast - Nature Blog - Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s interest in fossils stemmed in part from a famous archaeological site in Kentucky, near the Ohio border, not terribly distant from Jefferson’s birthplace in Virginia. The archaeological site, a swampy area with a prehistoric salt lick adjacent to sulphur springs, is today a State Park known as Big Bone Lick. In Jefferson’s day, it was instead called Elephant Bone Lick, from the tusk fragments that French explorers had found there and brought back to Europe to study. Over the eons, the salt lick had lured animals to the area, but, because the area was so marshy, many animals that ventured in were unable to get out. So sealed the fate of thousands of North America’s prehistoric megafauna, including a giant ground sloth, an extinct species of bison, a primitive horse, and the mammoths that lend their name to this episode of Age of Ecology.

Throughout the 19th Century, thousands of bones were excavated from the site by archaeological teams from all over the world, including a team led by William Clark -- of Lewis and Clark fame -- who Thomas Jefferson personally appointed to gather fossils from the area. (In fact, some speculate that Jefferson had an ulterior motive in sending Lewis and Clark on their famous 1803 Expedition of the newly acquired Louisiana Territory: to find mastodons.)

 

VII. A Bone to Pick with Buffon

Famed French naturalist and prominent hoarder of names, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, later studied some of the specimens unearthed in Big Bone Lick Park by William Clark and concluded that New World four-legged animals had degenerated from Old World species during the course of their isolation in the swamps of America. Moreover, he suggested that one or more of these degenerate New World species had gone extinct during prehistoric times, perhaps owing to their degeneracy.

Jefferson, once incorrectly accused of atheism during the Presidential Election of 1800, actually viewed nature as a complete and perfect manifestation of God’s work. And he took Buffon’s hypothesis of New World degeneracy personally. Very personally.

So personally that, in his book Notes on the State of Virginia and in his 1797 memoir, Megalonyx (the scientific name for the giant ground sloth that once roamed the U.S.), Jefferson devoted numerous words to discrediting Buffon’s view of New World degeneracy. He even shipped a panther pelt to France while he was stationed there to show Buffon definitively that the American version was bigger than the French counterpart. In light of his religious views of the completeness of nature, Jefferson was unable to decouple Buffon’s theory of New World degeneracy from Buffon’s theory of New World extinction. He thus went to great pains to discredit both.

As Jefferson aged, the evidence became insurmountable that extinctions -- and a lot of them, to boot -- had occurred through the eons in prehistoric North America. Yet Jefferson did not budge from his theory, writing as late as 1818, just eight years before his death: “I think therefore still, there is reason to doubt whether any species of animal has become extinct.”

 

VIII. The Curious Case of North America’s Megafauna

But as Jefferson’s discredited theory waned, paleontologists’ interest in what became of the North American megafauna waxed. As they unearthed more and more bones, they realized that many of North America’s largest land animals -- the giant ground sloth, an ancient bison, a type of native horse, and the mammoths themselves -- had all disappeared around the same time, between 10,000 and 12,000 years ago.

Scientists have constructed numerous theories over the years to explain this sudden disappearance in the fossil record, but perhaps the two most cited are overkill by humans, and a quickly shifting climate. Both are relatively straightforward. The overkill theory suggests that the first pulse of humans to reach the Americas over the land bridge that once connected Siberia with modern-day Alaska, commonly referred to as the Clovis peoples, stalked the mammoths across the plains of the Midwest, ultimately hunting them to extinction. Hence the theory’s name: the overkill theory.

The climate theory posits that a warming climate disproportionately affected larger animals, such as the mammoths, because larger animals can’t “lose heat as fast as smaller animals”. (Not to mention, mammoth wool could be more than 3 feet thick.)

One strand within the climate theory suggests that an asteroid exploded above Earth around 13,000 years ago. With atomic bomb-like force, the explosion is said to have ignited wildfires that swept across much of North America. The fires killed off vegetation and ultimately starved North America’s megafauna to death. The impact destabilized North America’s Laurentide ice sheet, which stretched across modern-day Canada and the upper bounds of the U.S.. As this happened, freshwater advanced into the north Atlantic Ocean with the force of white-walkers on Sundays in spring. The Ocean’s circulation went haywire. Less warm water circulated from the Equator to the northern climates, summoning forth glaciers down the latitudes, a Michael Crichton-style pox exhumed from Siberian graves.

More recent research published in the journal Science extends the climate-change hypothesis, agreeing that humans were not the alpha and omega behind the extinction of most of North America’s large animals. For example, bones of most large North American sloths (the Megalonyx, for which Thomas Jefferson named his autobiography) do not bear the cut marks of Clovis stone tools. Additionally, data show that from 75 to 90% of the North American megafauna had already gone the way of the dinosaur by the time that humans arrived. The article’s authors conclude that climate -- specifically, atmospheric cooling during the Younger Dryas that lowered the Earth’s temperature by up to 11 degrees Fahrenheit in the span of mere decades -- pushed North America’s sloths and bison to the brink of extinction. Members of the Clovis culture then arrived on the scene to deliver the coup de sloths, the knockout blow.

Interestingly, one of the two animals that many scientists agree was primarily extirpated by humans was the mammoth. Mammoth middens across North America are riddled with Clovis points of jasper, chert, obsidian gleaming like the depths of space. It would seem that the unstable climate of the Younger Dryas had backed the mammoths right up to a tipping point, a Clovis tipping point. Like our cousins the Neanderthals who made one last stand on the island of Gibraltar, after local extinctions across Europe and at the hands of North America’s Clovis people, mammoths clung to existence on two remote islands off the coast of Siberia.

 

IX. St. Paul & The Broken Bones

Likely uninhabited by humans until the 18th Century, St. Paul is a remote island nearly 300 miles off the coast of Alaska, the state that claims the island as one of its own. Known today as a bird-watching paradise, St. Paul Island sports an arctic maritime climate of frigid temperatures, ubiquitous fog, and cold rains. The island hasn’t seen a thunderstorm in the last forty years, a testament to the unique weather of the island that, in tandem with its remoteness, provided a safe haven for mammoths thousands of years after their mainland disappearance. But the mammoths’ sojourn on St. Paul was not to last.

St. Paul hasn’t always been an island. In fact, it formed part of Beringia, the land bridge that once connected Siberia to Alaska and allowed the Clovis peoples to migrate into the America. St. Paul’s link to the continents is also how mammoths arrived on the scene. But as the Earth began to warm around 14,000 years ago, sea levels rose and stranded the rugged outcropping. The Younger Dryas a thousand years later wasn’t enough to rejoin the island to its continental parents, and, as the Younger Dryas cold snap lifted, oceans rose yet further.

Like a corporate spy, saltwater infiltrated St. Paul’s freshwater sources. By around 6,000 years ago, the mammoths only had one lake from which to drink during times of drought. Like their elephant cousins, mammoths were thirsty creatures. As mammoths ate the foliage around their lone, remaining lake, evaporation of the lake water likely accelerated, without tree roots helping retain moisture in the area. The last mammoths on St. Paul likely died of thirst.

A small contingency of mammoths held on for another 1,500 years north of St. Paul, on a desolate Siberian island by the name of Wrangel. There, the mammoth’s gene pool (only around 300 mammoths populated the island) was so muted that, by the time of their demise, they’d suffered a “genetic meltdown”, in which negative mutations had halted protein synthesis, thinned their woolly coats, and virtually eliminated the mammoths’ sense of smell. This last stand of mammoths ultimately withered into degeneracy and went extinct around 4,000 years ago.

 

X. Manatees: Modern-Day Mammoths? 

So what should we take away from this mammoth expedition through South Africa and Siberia, to swamps in Kentucky and the halls of science in 18th Century France? For that, we move from the blizzards of the north to the humidity of and currents along Florida’s coast, between the roots of mangroves twisted together like the walls in Antoni Gaudi’s House of Bones in Barcelona. For there, along the coasts of Florida, we find one of the mammoth’s closest of kin, the West Indian manatee, drifting in and out of the sun, now the matte brown of kelp, a moment later, the fractal patterns of giraffes.

The West Indian manatee was one of the original animals classified as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. As recently as 1991, scientists and field specialists counted no more than 1,200 of such manatees adrift in the coastal waters of the United States. But its status as a protected species, active protection of its native habitat, an an elevated awareness in the minds of the public through such measures as Florida’s annual Manatee Awareness Month each November, have led to a rebound in numbers.

Age of Ecology - David Attenborough's Favorite Podcast - Nature Blog - West Indian Manatee

As of today, an estimated 13,000 manatees roam the Caribbean, the Gulf and the southern Atlantic seaboard, some venturing as far north as Georgia’s Golden Isles. Protection and repopulation efforts have been so successful that the US Fish & Wildlife Service has recently considered downgrading the manatees from “endangered” status to “threatened”, a move that will preserve the protections afforded manatees while acknowledging the hard work that conservationists have done to boost the species’ numbers in the last few decades.

 

XI. Make Ecosystems Green Again

It appears that, even in this age of troubling politicians and troubled politics, more and more individuals are aware of the complexity and fragility of Earth’s many ecosystems. Aware that pollution, overhunting, invasive species, and other ills are degrading these ecosystems. And maybe, just maybe, we’re entering a new era, an Age of Ecology, in which we’re beginning to reduce our environmental footprint in ways that resemble, if only slightly, the stewardship that many Native American civilizations were practicing by the time European settlers arrived in the New World.

A collection of practices that maybe, just maybe, arose in response to a recognition that the practices of their forebears -- including finishing off the mammoths with arrows carved from rock -- had unwittingly made it more difficult for future generations to survive and thrive. For when a hunter, perhaps painted with ochre, sent the last American mammoth into oblivion with a crude, pocked blade of obsidian driven into the mammoth’s tough, weathered hide, the hunter was doing so not to deprive his grandchildren of the mammoths.

The hunter did so under the belief that more mammoths roamed in the next valley, across the next mountain range. It was a belief that even science-enamored President Jefferson held thousands of years later, right up until his last breath. But we’ve come far since Jefferson’s time, when lamps and lanterns still fished up rooms with their whale oil fuel.

As a people, we now know the effects of human predation, abruptly changing climate, and dwindling biodiversity. We needn’t wait with bated breath for ingenious entrepreneurs to invent magic bullets of life, or for politicians to snap out of their greenback haze. There are plenty of actions we can take, big and small, to help us chart the right path, towards a sustainable future. If those who lack knowledge of history are doomed to repeat it, we’re already on the right path. Let’s accelerate the pace together to ensure the mammoth’s last breath be wasted not.

 

XII. Further Reading

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/02/3/l_023_01.html (On Jean-Baptiste Lamarck’s contribution to evolutionary thinking, albeit in many incorrect directions)

http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/history/lamarck.html (On the accomplishments and impoverished ending of Lamarck’s life)

https://www.gutenberg.org/files/20556/20556-h/20556-h.htm#Page_23 (A biography of Lamarck)

https://www.forbes.com/sites/davidbressan/2015/06/29/how-scientists-discovered-the-extinction-of-species/#75cee0c41a01 (On the development of the theory that species could go extinct)

https://web.archive.org/web/20060106155510/http://www.acnatsci.org/museum/jefferson/otherPages/bigBoneLick.html (On Big Bone Lick Park and its paleontological history)

https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/books/book/204/chapter/3794045/Thomas-Jefferson-extinction-and-the-evolving-view (On Thomas Jefferson’s chafing of Buffon’s theory of degeneracy)

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2001/11/1101_WoolyMammoth.html; http://www.dnadarwin.org/casestudies/10/FILES/MammothSG2.0.pdf; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1360100/ (On the evolutionary history of the mammoth)

https://www.livescience.com/20894-woolly-mammoths-extinction.html (On the causes behind mammoths’ extinction); compare https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2014/01/what-killed-great-beasts-north-america (On the relative importance of humans vs. climate in the extinction of the North Americna megafauna)

https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2016/03/jefferson-american-dream/471696/ (On Thomas Jefferson’s quest to prove America’s superiority)

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3219973/ (On the possible interbreeding of woolly and Columbia mammoths to produce Jefferson mammoths)

https://www.jstor.org/stable/4526349?seq=15#page_scan_tab_contents (On mammoths in Chinese folklore)

https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2016/10/siberian-mammoth-pirates/503852/ (On Siberian mammoth piratry)

https://www.perc.org/articles/conservation-native-american-style-full (On the land use of Native American tribes during and after European settlement)