The Utah mammoth died because the world burned down


This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identifying solutions to Utah’s greatest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Walk through the back corridors of University of Utah Museum of Natural History, Tyler Faith It is impossible to look at the wooden crates without thinking about Raiders of the Lost Ark.

“After bones, crates are my favorite,” Faith said. As curator of archeology for the museum, a professor in the anthropology department and a guy who studies giant sloths and saber-tooth cats all day, Faith lives every 8-year-old boy’s dream job. .

“I guess I never grew up.”

His work is often firmly planted in the past, But recent research conducted with colleagues at Yale and in South Africa could be of profound importance for our future.

Despite its name, the ice age saw its fair share of wildfires, especially in its late stages.

Humans have part of the reason, because maybe a catastrophic comet that burned 10% of the earth’s surface almost 13,000 years ago. But Faith and his colleagues found another surprising culprit: the disappearance of large lawnmowers.

“When these ancient giants went extinct, there was nothing left to control the grass,” says Faith, standing in front of a few of Utah’s ice age giants: short-faced bears, mammoths and bison neck. “Instead of mammoths and mastodons, fire became the ultimate herbivore.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Tyler Faith, Curator of Archeology at the Utah Museum of Natural History in Salt Lake City on Monday, December 6, 2021. Behind him is a ghost elephant. Colombian sucker and an Ice Age bison.

Faith’s research offers five key lessons as we face a new age of climate change.

Lesson 1: Chicken plucker or forest fire, something will eat grass

Faith’s work added learn where researchers fenced off an area of ​​savanna grassland to see what would happen when the herbivores closed in.

“Not surprisingly,” says Faith, “excludes herbivores and vegetation that grows and becomes fuel for fires.”

The new study looks at charcoal records from 410 locations around the globe and compares them with the extinction of large herbivores 50,000 to 6,000 years ago. The researchers found that the continents that saw more losses of large herders (North and South America) saw larger increases in wildfires.

Looking at the full scale of Earth’s history, fire and herbivores acted to control grass and vegetation.

“It’s a trade-off,” Faith said, “but if you take one away, the other takes its place.”

Lesson 2: Wild herbivores are in decline worldwide

Wildlife populations are in decline globally.

“Look around,” Faith said, “you won’t see bison roaming around. Outside of farms and national parks, animal populations are declining.”

This can be seen on the millennium scale and the decades scale, says Faith: “We’ve seen real population declines in our lifetimes. On a geologic time scale, that’s less than nothing. “

Lesson 3: Pleistocene Park is probably not the answer

In September, Colossal Biosciences went public in an effort to resurrect (extinct) woolly mammoths and bring them back to Siberia.

Curiously, Colossal is a private company. Their website boldly states, “We have the DNA, the technology and the leading experts in the field. Next, we’ll have woolly mammoths. Revive.”

There are arguments for the so-called “roll in” – reintroducing missing species into ecosystems as has been done with the reintroduction of wolves in certain areas. Faith notes that it might make sense to introduce some equivalent species to replace the large herbivores that are in short supply in North America, “but the ecology is complex and every small change comes with a series of consequences, so we have to be cautious.”

Use confidence cheatgrass, which fuels most fires in the valleys and foothills of Utah, as an example. “Maybe mammoths can take care of cheatgrass for us.”

But that’s a big thing. Some previous research have suggested that grazing can help prevent rogue grass fires, but a more recent study shows that grazing is a source of weeds.

Faith hopes to see experiments that come from the team’s research, some tests of ideas, but done with all due care.

Lesson 4: We should rethink the management of the wastelands

Faith sees millennial evidence supporting the idea that stopping wildfires through extinguishing fires is a flawed approach.

“Extinction kills large herbivores, vegetation grows, fire takes over vegetation control,” he said. “If you keep putting out the wildfires, the same thing happens – biomass builds up, you get more and more fuel, and you’ve got the recipe for big fires like we’re seeing here. The West.”

Lesson 5: People are part of the system

“People say just remove the human component and everything will be fine, but that’s sad because human footprints are everywhere,” Faith said.

Faith sees accepting our role in the ecological system as crucial to creating change: “Once you get over that mental barrier and accept us as part of the system, that’s it. is empowering. … We have a lot of work to learn, but if we accept and better understand our role, we can start making positive changes.” The Utah mammoth died because the world burned down

Yasmin Harisha

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