Mammoths and flowers

Passed on to me by Sim Aberson, this NPR story of February 6th, “Woolly Mammoths’ Taste For Flowers May Have Been Their Undoing” by Geoff Brumfiel, beginning:

They were some of the largest, hairiest animals ever to walk the Earth, but new research shows a big part of the woolly mammoth’s diet was made up of tiny flowers.

The work is based on DNA analysis of frozen arctic soil and mammoth poop. It suggests that these early vegans depended on the flowers as a vital source of protein. And when the flowers disappeared after the last ice age, so too did the mammoths that ate them.

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Note that this is research in progress. The story continues:

Fifty-thousand years ago, the present-day arctic tundra was a vast grassland through which mammoths, woolly rhinos, reindeer and even lions roamed.

Most researchers thought the mammoths and other giants fed mainly on the grass. But Eske Willerslev, a researcher at the University of Copenhagen, wanted to check. Willerslev specializes in analyzing ancient DNA, much of which he finds in frozen Arctic soil. “It’s the perfect environment for conducting this type of study,” he says.

He and his collaborators took hundreds of frozen soil samples from modern-day Alaska and Siberia. The group analyzed the DNA from dead plants frozen in the soil. And they found that the Arctic wasn’t just grassland. There was another class of plants growing at the time. Known as “forbs,” they had flowers, and looked something like dandelions or buttercups. The little plants were everywhere.

Forb is a technical term. From Wikipedia:

A forb (sometimes spelled phorb) is a herbaceous flowering plant that is not a graminoid (grasses, sedges and rushes). The term is used in biology and in vegetation ecology, especially in relation to grasslands and understory.

Discussion on this blog here.

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Now the range of flowering plants is huge; it includes not only graminoids and the plants that are called in ordinary language flowers (both cultivated flowers and wildflowers), but also flowering shrubs, trees, and vines, plus vegetables and fruits. All except the graminoids are technically forbs. Apparently the claim is that out of all of these only the wildflowers grew on the tundra and served as mammoth food — and they were wiped out in the last ice age.

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