The hunt for pygmy mammoths

By Tim Walker, producer Ice Age Giants

Episode 3 Last of the giants

The wilderness of Wrangel Island lies about 100 miles north of the Siberian mainland high in the Arctic Ocean. A Russian nature reserve, Wrangel was the home of the last woolly mammoths to have walked the Earth. Mammoths inhabited the island until only 4000 years ago. In that time ancient Egyptians had already built the pyramids and Stonehenge was only a few centuries old.

In 2011 the production team joined a joint scientific expedition to hunt for the remains of new mammoth specimens. The brief Arctic summer makes access only possible for a few weeks in August. Following several flights across Siberia and a two day journey by ice breaker cargo ship, the crew finally stepped ashore and started a three week filming trip. We soon discovered that island life is dominated by an iconic but potentially dangerous resident – polar bears.

Over the course of our stay we encountered bears daily. Most of the sea ice completely disappears during the warmer months but many female polar bears and their cubs stay on the island during summer. They are attracted by several large rookeries of walruses which provide an occasional meal. We had to ensure that we didn’t find ourselves served up as an al fresco bear meal!

Most of them steer clear of human interaction, but occasionally some individuals would get a little too close for comfort. It makes you realise how much of a wilderness Wrangel really is! That white dot on the horizon is actually a wandering bear. With no public conveniences on the island you’ve just got to find a quiet spot, and nothing makes the human body work faster than the threat of bear-based-danger!

Luckily the expedition passed without incident and the scientists in the team discovered a new haul of mammoth remains. Some are possibly even more recent than those previously discovered. It appears that the mammoths in the Arctic had shrunk in stature! The particularly cold conditions in the Arctic mean that species sometimes shrink to cope with the cold and scarcity of food. When those remains are properly dated we could discover that the mammoths of Wrangel lived more recently than anybody ever dared imagine.

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