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Friday, 2 November, 2001, 11:56 GMT
When mammoths roamed England
Skeleton of a woolly mammoth from Steinheim, Germany: Dr Adrian Lister
A 350,000-year-old skeleton of a woolly mammoth from Steinheim, Germany
Helen Briggs

A clash of the mammoths could have taken place in what is now southern England thousands of years ago.

Fossils found in Buckinghamshire and Norfolk suggest that two types of mammoth lived side-by-side in prehistoric times.

Scientists believe herds of more advanced mammoths moving south from Siberia encountered primitive European ones.

The newcomers were better adapted to a cold climate and eventually outbred their contemporaries. But the European mammoths might have interbred with the Siberian invaders, leaving their mark in the gene pool.

Fossilised mammoth tooth: Dr Adrian Lister
150,000-year-old molar tooth of a woolly mammoth from England
Until recently it was thought that the woolly mammoth and the two species of mammoth that preceded it evolved gradually, never walking the planet at the same time.

But in the last few years the theory has been called into question by new fossils uncovered in Europe.

The discoveries, by a Russian and British expert, suggest that different species of mammoth co-existed at two critical stages in their evolution.

Climate change

Andrei Sher, of the Severtsov Institute of Ecology and Evolution, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, told BBC News Online: "It's a classic concept that mammoth ancestors came from Africa 3-4 million years ago then gradually evolved in Eurasia during the course of climate change - the trend towards a colder climate.

"According to existing theory, their evolution in Eurasia was gradual, culminating in the woolly mammoth.

"In the last few years, new evidence has been emerging from Europe that doesn't fit the picture."

Mammoth timeline
3-4 million years ago: Mammoths appear in sub-Saharan Africa
1.7 million years ago: Mammoths cross the land bridge that linked Siberia and Alaska
13,000 - 10,000 BC: The Earth's climate changes and ice sheets gradually diminish
10,000 - 9,000 BC: Mammoths start to die out in Europe and Asia
8,000 BC: Full-size mammoths become extinct in Siberia and the Americas
2,000 BC: The last mammoths, a dwarf species found on an island off the coast of Siberia, die out
Three species of mammoth are known to have been present in Europe and Siberia.

The most primitive mammoth was the ancestral or early mammoth, which lived in Europe between about 2.5 million and 700,000 years ago.

This was followed by the steppe mammoth, which lived until about 200,000 years ago, then the woolly mammoth, which finally died out about 3,500 years ago.

"Climate cooling, the appearance of permafrost and a very harsh climate appeared in Siberia much earlier than in Europe," said Dr Sher.

"Consequently, the mammoths that lived there had to evolve much faster," he told BBC News Online. "The problem was how did they interact with the European mammoths?"

To answer that question, Dr Sher, and Dr Adrian Lister of University College, London, UK, looked at fossil samples from various sites in European Russia, Europe and Siberia.

They came to the conclusion that during two critical periods in the evolution of mammoths, Siberian mammoths migrated south and encountered their European relatives.

Clash of the giants

Evidence from a site in what is now West Runton, Norfolk, shows that steppe mammoths from Siberia encountered ancestral mammoths in England about one million years ago.

Mammoth teeth found at a second site, in the village of Marsworth, Buckinghamshire, point to a second clash of the giants, later in their evolution.

This took place about 190,000 years ago, between woolly mammoths from Siberia and the steppe mammoths of Europe.

Dr Adrian Lister, co-author of the mammoth study, published in the journal Science, believes the newcomers probably replaced the older mammoth populations.

"The older ones were dying out because the changed habitat wasn't to their liking," Dr Lister told BBC News Online. "Whereas the newcomers were adapted to the colder climate and more open treeless vegetation."

But Dr Lister believes there was probably limited interbreeding between the different mammoths, and even some squabbles.

"Closely related species like that wouldn't normally fight," he told BBC News Online. "But it's possible they could have fought over patches of feeding ground."

Images courtesy of Dr Adrian Lister

See also:

21 Oct 99 | Sci/Tech
Mammoth comes in from the cold
07 Dec 00 | Asia-Pacific
Hunt for the mammoth is on
14 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Giant elk survived the freeze
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