Woolly Mammoth Babies Late Bloomers

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Woolly mammoth moms didn't start to wean their babies until they were between two and three years old, compared to six and eighteen months for African elephants.

SEE ALSO: Oldest Baby Mammoth Headed to Paris

But it's not that the mammoths had trouble cutting the apron strings back in the Pleistocene Epoch (about 150,000 to 40,000 years ago). The ancient elephants had good reason to keep their babies close during the long arctic winter nights in what is now the Canadian Yukon.

SEE ALSO: Woolly Mammoth Blood Revived Through Bacteria

Saber-toothed cats prowling the gloom may have given the protective mothers good reason to keep baby within trunk's reach. A lack of vegetation may have been another reason.

Jessica Metcalfe of the University of Western Ontario studied the chemical composition of adult and infant mammoth teeth to determine what they were eating. She believes the infants didn't start chomping on solid foods, like plants, until at least age two, and perhaps as late as three. 

Metcalte conducted her research on fossil teeth from Old Crow, Yukon. Her results were published in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.

But waiting to wean may have had an evolutionary cost, noted Metclafe in a University of Western Ontario press release.

“Today, a leading cause of infant elephant deaths in Myanmar (Burma) is insufficient maternal milk production,” said Metcalfe.

“Woolly mammoths may have been more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and human hunting than modern elephants not only because of their harsher environment, but also because of the metabolic demands of lactation and prolonged nursing, especially during the longer winter months,” said Metcalfe.

SEE ALSO: As Mammoths Died Out, Earth Chilled

Metclafe also warmed that the extinction of mammoths should remind people what can happen when climate change and human pressures come to bear on a species.

“Mammoths lived all over the world for thousands of years, even millions of years, and then became extinct about 10,000 years ago, which was around the time the climate started warming the last time,” said Metcalfe.

SEE ALSO: How Did the Mammoths Go Extinct?

“Understanding their ecology, their adaptations and their behavior not only gives us insight into why they became extinct but also, potentially, gives us a better understanding of modern day mammals and how they might respond to the current warming of the planet,” said Metcalfe.

IMAGE 1: Woolly mammoth; Wikimedia Commons

IMAGE 2: A dried out baby mammoth preserved for thousands of years; Wikimedia Commons

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