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Honymand via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Honymand via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Some Woolly Mammoths Survived Until Just 5600 Years Ago

Honymand via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0
Honymand via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

Quick: Name all the Ice Age animals you can think of. There’s the woolly mammoth, and the … woolly mammoth … and the … yeah. You’re not wrong; woolly mammoths did live in the Pleistocene, or Ice Age. But they may have made it further into the present day than we thought; new evidence suggests the big beasts were tromping around in our own Holocene Age as recently as 5600 years ago. The results were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Today, the volcanic region of St. Paul Island is fairly isolated, lying about 200 miles south of mainland Alaska. But thousands of years ago it was part of the mainland itself, forming one tiny section of the Bering Land Bridge. The bridge played a huge role in the history of our planet, allowing humans and countless other species—including mammoths (Mammuthus primigenius)—to spread across the Northern Hemisphere. 

St. Paul Island today. Image credit: Bill Briggs via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

But the bridge was not to last. Temperatures rose on Earth. Glaciers began to melt. Sea levels began to rise. Gradually, animals migrated to the highest ground they could find. Over time, those areas of high ground—like the top of the St. Paul volcano—became islands. 

The first mammoth remains were found on St. Paul Island in 1999. Radiocarbon dating the bones of the five animals revealed that they were surprisingly recent, about 6500 years old. That’s long after mammoths had disappeared from the mainland. There was no evidence of human life, and scientists wondered what it was that finally took the mammoths out

To find out, they checked in with the mammoths and their island. Researchers drilled down into a lakebed at the center of the island and extracted three samples of compressed sediment, each slightly deeper than the last. Those samples were combined into a long, composite core, packed with information about the world that was. 

From that master sample, the team scooped out smaller samples. Some were examined for evidence of microscopic coprophilous—that’s poop-eating—fungi. Finding, quantifying, and identifying that fungi could help determine how well the mammoths (the fungi’s preferred food source) were doing. 

Next, they sequenced the core’s sedimentary DNA, which allowed them to identify tiny traces of life. Then they scanned the sample for signs of other life, including microscopic crustaceans, algae, plants, and pollen. Finally, they found and analyzed the remains of an additional 14 mammoth specimens. 

The results of this ecosystem-wide approach were kind of grim. Radiocarbon dating of the newly discovered mammoths found that the beasts had lived about a thousand years closer to the present day than had previously been believed, but the world they inhabited was a rough one. 

The island, it seems, had begun to dry out around about 7800 years ago. Levels of nitrogen and carbon isotopes increased in the mammoths’ plant diet, suggesting the plants—and thus the mammoths—were getting thirsty. The island began to die. Then, about 5600 years ago, signs of mammoth and other life dropped precipitously. 

Aptly named co-author Matthew Wooller is director of the Alaska Stable Isotope Facility at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It paints a dire picture of the situation for these mammoths,” he said in a press statement. “Freshwater resources look like the smoking gun for what pushed them into this untenable situation.” 

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Pig Island: Sun, Sand, and Swine Await You in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
Christine Colby

As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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