THEY were the last surviving population of woolly mammoths, who existed for thousands of years after most of their compatriots died off. Now, new light is being shed on what happened to the last mammoths to walk the earth.

When did mammoths die out?

Mammoths had thrived for hundreds of thousands of years, but by around 10,000 years ago, most were gone, except for two groups – one on St Paul Island, Alaska, and one on Wrangel Island, in the Arctic Ocean.

How long did they survive?

The St Paul mammoths were extinct by around 5,400 years ago, while the Wrangel mammoths lived until around 4,000 years ago.

And when they finally died out?

That was the moment the mammoth became extinct. According to the new research from the University of Helsinki the demise of the animals on Wrangel was “fairly abrupt” and “without signs of prior decline of the population”.

What does this mean?

Scientists believe prolonged isolation on the island made the mammoths genetically weaker. Other issues had long been cited as potential reasons for their demise, such as human predation and poor access to fresh water, but it is their susceptibility to in-breeding that changed their genetic make-up and ultimately, what they could endure.

Could extreme weather have been the final straw?

Along with the other contributing factors, experts believe an event such as rain-on-snow, where the ground was covered in a thick layer of ice, preventing the animals from finding enough food, may have reduced the population to irretrievable numbers.

Could there be a comeback?

The huge creatures – woolly mammoths were around 13ft tall and weighed around six tons – are the focus of a revival effort. Due to the fact many mammoth bodies are well-preserved, DNA has been extracted that, in theory, could be used to clone them.

Scientists are divided?

Aside from ethical discussions, some feel that the creatures did not survive due to the habitat on earth no longer suiting them, so how could they thrive now? Others say a suitable habitat could be created.

There’s a woolly mammoth revival project?

It is part of the work of California-based Revive & Restore, which believes advances in biotechnology present the opportunity to bring back extinct species.

The group’s scientists say the “woolly mammoth has emerged as a leading candidate” as its close relative, the Asian elephant, still lives, saying “the genes of woolly mammoth traits can be edited into the Asian elephant genome, and the combination brought to life as an elephant cousin, once again adapted for the conditions of the far north”.

Researchers believe there are lessons to be learned?

Dr Laura Arppe, who led the research, said: “The study shows how isolated small populations of large mammals are particularly at risk of extinction due to extreme environmental influences and human behaviour. An important takeaway from this is that we can help preserve species by protecting the populations that are not isolated from one another.”

Maureen Sugden