Dickens, Luck & the Woolly Mammoth

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A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.   Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar  via Reuters

A Mammoth tusk extracted from ice complex deposits along the Logata River in Taimyr, Russia.
Photo: Per Moller / Johanna Anjar via Reuters

“Life is made of ever so many partings welded together.” Charles Dickens (born 7 February 1812), Great Expectations

So many of Charles Dickens writings are concerned with those who succeed and those who fall by the wayside. Usually in his novels, success (or at least, survival) can be due to a number of factors in life, chief among them being that fickle friend, Luck. Failure (or death) comes often enough in the form of hunger or at the hands of those stronger and more brutal.

And so to the survival or demise of prehistoric megafauna, the woolly mammoth, the cave bear, the giant sloth, the woolly rhinoceros, the great creatures that once wandered the planet and still populate our imagination.

A new study out in Nature set out to find a strategy to predict which creatures might survive the current climate change based on past extinctions. What they found, finally, was that Luck played as much of a role as human hunting and encroachment, habitat destruction, and changing temperatures.

A visit to my favorite tree-of-life site, OneZoom.org, shows that only a fraction of the megafauna around 40,000 years ago are still with us today, with the numbers dropping regularly. The fact is that some species were just more fortunate than others.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana. Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest.

Tall forb park, Swift Creek Research Natural Area, Montana.
Photo: Susan Marsh / Bridger-Teton National Forest

The woolly mammoth, for example, had long been thought to have gone extinct due mainly to hunting. However, the study points to the woolly mammoth’s reliance on foraging for the protein-rich forbs, flowering plants, that once carpeted its northern territories. As the climate changed, the prairies and fields of forbs gave way to less nutritious grasslands. The woolly mammoth, like many of Dickens’ most virtuous characters, simply starved to death.

Dickens’ world was nothing if not unfair in whom it chose to favor.

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London. Source: Smithsonian Magazine

From Sketches by Boz (1835), essays by Dickens on Seven Dials, a poor section of London.
Source: Smithsonian Magazine

For the extinct heat-sensitive Eurasian musk ox, rising temperatures proved too much for it to survive.

For the dwindling number of elephants and rhinos still alive today, it may be a human hunger for their tusks and horns. For the polar bear, receding ice.  Some of them may just surprise us by proving more adaptable than expected.

But in the meanwhile, it might be a good idea to take a lesson from Dickens on the 202nd anniversary of his birth, and do all we can, for as many as we can.

Luck doesn’t have to be the name of the game.

2 responses »

  1. I never thought anyone could artfully tie Charles Dickens to the wooley mammoth but once again PK Read shows us that climate change unites us all.

    • Hey Laurel, thanks for stopping by! I like to think that if Dickens were alive today, he’d still be championing those who can’t defend themselves – whether human or otherwise.

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