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The grasses, broad-leaved herbs, and low shrubs of the steppe provided nutritious food, and in addition to mammoths, nourished a profusion of other outsize, exuberantly hairy mammalian megafauna—woolly rhinoceroses, enormous long-horned bison, and bear-size beavers, as well as the fearsome carnivores that hunted them: saber-toothed cats, cave hyenas, and giant short-faced bears.Then, between 14,000 and 10,000 years ago, the mammoths disappeared from most of their range, along with most of the other large mammal species in the Northern Hemisphere—as many as 70 percent in some regions.
Because mammoths often died and were buried in sediment that has been frozen ever since, many of their remains have survived into modern times, particularly in the vast deep freeze of Siberian permafrost.These extinctions were so sweeping that scientists have evoked a number of cataclysmic events to explain them—a meteorite strike, killer fires and droughts, and a virulent, cross-species hyperdisease.Since the extinctions coincided with the end of the most recent ice age, however, many researchers believe that the primary cause of the great die-off was the sharp rise in temperature, which dramatically altered the vegetation.By the time her mother reaches the bank, the baby is partially submerged in the ice-cold mire and flailing feebly, rapidly sliding into shock. The moon sets, and stars glow in the chill heavens.The mother screams and mills on the soft bank, drawing the rest of the herd. Just before dawn, she takes a last look at the spot where the earth swallowed her baby, then turns and follows the herd north, toward summer pastures.