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Male mammoths were good at falling in holes


Research has uncovered a surprising gender bias in Siberian mammoth remains. Karl Gruber explains.


Historical photo of a stuffed Siberian mammoth. Chances are, it was a male.
Historical photo of a stuffed Siberian mammoth. Chances are, it was a male.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Male mammoths — much like male humans — were clumsy galoots who didn’t look where they walking and fell into holes, scientists have established.

Researchers led by Love Dalen of the Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm set out to determine the gender of 98 sets of mammoth remains collected from various parts of Siberia. Unexpectedly, they found that most of them were male.

The results came as a surprise, because there was no reason to expect a sex bias in the fossil record.

"Since the ratio of females to males was likely balanced at birth, we had to consider explanations that involved better preservation of male remains," says team member Patricia Pecnerova.

In a paper published in the journal Current Biology, the scientists suggest the result might be because most of the mammoth corpses were found at the bottom of natural traps.

"Most bones, tusks, and teeth from mammoths and other Ice Age animals haven't survived," says Dalen.

"It is highly likely that the remains that are found in Siberia these days have been preserved because they have been buried, and thus protected from weathering.

“The new findings imply that male mammoths more often died in a way that meant their remains were buried, perhaps by falling through lake ice in winter or getting stuck in bogs.”

Researchers think woolly mammoths had a social structure similar to those of modern elephants, where a herd of females and juveniles is led by an experienced older female.

In such elephant societies, young males often leave the herd and wander off on their own or in small “bachelor groups”, engaging in potentially risky behaviours.

"Without the benefit of living in a herd led by an experienced female, male mammoths may have had a higher risk of dying in natural traps such as bogs, crevices, and lakes," Dalen said.

Karl Gruber is a biologist and science writer based in Perth, Western Australia.
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