Woolly mammoths may have feasted on flowers, living life as gentle vegans, according to new research.
They may not have been alone, as rhinos and other wild animals may have joined them, foraging for a wildflower called forbs. This vegetation was particularly high in protein, making it a desirable food source during the Pleistocene Epoch. This era brought arctic conditions to northern Europe, beginning over two million years ago, which would not end until around 9700 BC.
Arctic life at that time was examined by a group of researchers including Joseph Craine, an ecosystem ecologist at Kansas State University.
Until this study was published, the prevailing view of scientists presented a picture of the Arctic as bare, except for vast stretches of grass. Woolly mammoths were thought to roam the region, along with bison and rhino. This picture was guided by the study of pollen frozen during that time.
Because grasses give off more pollen than most other varieties of plants, researchers of the new study believe the old model was incorrect. They examined genetic material contained in 242 samples of ancient permafrost. Some of these materials were up to 50,000 years old.
They found evidence of wildflowers, and other plants, spread throughout the frozen earth. The landscape of the arctic regions at this time included sunflowers and mums, along with relatives of carnations and honeysuckles. This abundance of flowers, including forbs, became a cornucopia of food for wild creatures. Analysis of the stomach content of frozen remains provided additional evidence for the claims. The forbs may have played a critical role, providing enough protein and nutrients to keep the giant animals living in a harsh, ice age environment.
"It's always been believed that the Arctic steppe was dominated by grasses and grass-like plants, and we find that's not the case at all," Eline Lorenzen, an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley who was part of the project, said to NBC News.
The new study reveals grasses made up just 20 percent of the flora in samples of permafrost from 50,000 years before our time. When ice sheets began to dominate the region 20,000 years ago, the mammoth and many other species met their demise. As the last ice age ended, warmer and wetter conditions led to the spread of taller trees and shrubs, crowding out forbs, and ultimately leading to their extinction.
This study "paints a different picture of the Arctic. It makes us rethink how the vegetation looked and how those animals thrived on the landscape," study co-author Joseph Craine, an ecosystem ecologist at Kansas State University, said.
Research into conditions of the ancient ecosystems was published in the journal Nature, published 5 February.