Scientists reported that a woolly mammoth who died above the Arctic Circle lived his entire life as a vagabond.

To map the mammoth’s movements and geographic range, researchers looked at chemicals that had been deposited in one of the mammoths well-preserved tails. The researchers discovered that the brave animal roamed across Alaska, before finally succumbing to the cold north. The findings may shed some light on the reasons woolly mammoths eventually died.

Yue Wang, a Georgia Tech paleontologist who wasn’t involved in the research, said that there are many questions regarding woolly mammoth death. The most important consideration is the amount of ground covered by the animals over their lives. This can be used to help scientists understand how the changing climate and human activities have affected woolly mammoths.

Wang said, “This research sort of solves that question.” Researchers like me now have some evidence that woolly mammoths’ lifetime range can be quite large.

Large herbivores like elephants and caribou travel large distances every day. Scientists have also suspected that woolly mammals behaved in a similar way. Clement Bataille, a geologist from the University of Ottawa, Ontario, and coauthor of the findings, said that it was not clear when or how far they traveled.

He and his colleagues analysed a 1.7-meter (5.6-foot) long tusk taken from a male woolly mammoth who died at the age of 28. Some researchers believe the animal lived for around 60 years. These remains are about 17100 years old and were found during the last ice age.

In animals that eat and drink, trace elements like strontium or oxygen are ingested into their bodies. Some versions or isotopes of these elements are more prevalent in certain locations than others. The geology of the bedrock underpinning the strontium isotopes can be seen in the ratios of various strontium isotopes found in soil and plants. According to Bataille, the climatic conditions that affect water are affected by temperature, elevation and distance from the coast.

He says that strontium is gradually incorporated into the mammoth’s tusk as he moves across the landscape. It acts like a GPS record of the animal’s movements.

Bataille and his colleagues had used hundreds of rodent teeth taken from museum collections in order to map the strontium isotope variations in Alaskan ecosystems. Rodents are not able to migrate far like mammoths and can therefore provide hyper-local data. Researchers also looked at oxygen isotopes taken from mastodon and mammoth teeth.

[Related: Male woolly mammoths died young and lived quickly, leaving behind more corpses.]

They then compared these maps with the isotopic signatures in the woolly mammoth’s tusk. The algorithm was used to reconstruct the mammoth’s movements over time. This algorithm is constrained by barriers like cliffs or glaciers. They also estimated the distance the mammoth could travel in one week based on their presumed metabolism and size.

All the simulated paths suggested that the mammoth had covered an “astonishing” amount territory during his lifetime. Bataille said that the mammoth was “walking across a vast, enormous range and almost the entire Alaska landscape.”

The isotopes in the first few centimeters of the tusk’s growth lines suggest that the mammoth was born in the lower Yukon River Basin. He likely explored the lower Yukon River basin as a juvenile and was part of a group.

After reaching 16 years old, the mammoth started to travel longer distances, sometimes hundreds of miles. This shift could have been the moment when the mammoth was forced from his herd. It is what happens to male elephants as they age.

The mammoth never returned from his northward trip. The Brooks Range, located within the Arctic Circle, was where he spent the last year-and-a half of his adult life. The nitrogen isotopes of the tusk increased sharply during this period, which is a common phenomenon when starving animals have to break down their own protein in order to make energy. It is possible that the mammoth has become weaker or injured and cannot make the journey south to more favorable conditions.

Bataille warns that the findings may not reveal the exact range of the woolly mammoth. One thing Bataille and his team found is that the rodent teeth they examined were reflective of Alaska’s current landscape, which has changed significantly since the time the mammoth lived.

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Matthew Wooller, Director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility, University of Alaska Fairbanks, and coauthor of the findings, stated that there are limits to what can also be determined from one mammoth’s trunks. His colleagues and he plan to study other mammoths including females under different climates and time periods.

A warming climate around 12,000 years ago allowed boreal forests north to grow, which may have limited the ability for woolly mammoths and other mammals to travel across the tundra.

Wooller stated that “a implication of our research is that if mammoths kept moving around on this level, it may have caused additional stress on mammoths.” “Mammoths might have had a hard time moving around in this environment after the last ice age.”