Tuberculosis Helped Bring Down Mastodons

David Chapman meticulously cleans the jawbone of a young mastadon in front of the skeleton of a large male mastodon at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001. Bones of the young prehistoric beast, discovered earlier this year near Salem, Ohio, are estimated to be between 10,000 and 13,000 years old. (Image credit: AP Photo/Mark Duncan)

A tuberculosis pandemic among an ancient mammoth-like creature probably contributed to the great beasts' demise, a new study suggests.

Scientists examining mastodon skeletons found a type of bone damage in several of the animal's foot bones that is unique to sufferers of tuberculosis. The disease would have weakened and crippled the animals, making them more vulnerable to humans and climate change, two factors that scientists have long speculated were behind their extinction in North America.

Mastodons were ancient elephants that resembled mammoths, but were shorter and less hairy. Both species lived in North America and disappeared mysteriously, along with other large mammals, around the time of the last major Ice Age about 10,000 years ago.

A crippling disease

Researchers Bruce Rothschild of the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine and Richard Laub of the Buffalo Museum of Science in New York looked at 113 mastodon skeletons and found signs of tuberculosis in 59 of them. That's 52 percent.

Tuberculosis is a bacterial infection that commonly infects the lungs. It can also affect other parts of the body, including organs and bones. In humans, only about 1 to 7 percent of infected individuals develop bone damage. The fact that more than half of the mastodon skeletons examined had the bone lesions suggests tuberculosis was a "hyperdisease" that afflicted a large percentage of the North American mastodon population.

When tuberculosis infects bone, it creates a tell-tale type of damage in which bone beneath cartilage is carved out, or "excavated."

The infected mastodons were different ages and sizes and came from all over North America. They lived at different times, too. The disease appears to have struck the creatures as early as 34,000-years-ago and persisted in the species until as recently as 10,000- years-ago.

That the disease was widespread and yet persisted for so long in the species suggests it was not immediately lethal, Rothschild said. Instead, it was probably a chronic disease, one that gradually weakened rather than killed the animals.

Mastadon stressors

In humans, tuberculosis can lay dormant for several years after initial infection, repressed by the body's own immune system. But it can flare up into full-blown disease during times of stress. A similar flare-up probably happened with the mastodons during times of stress, Rothschild said.

Mastadons living at the end of the last Ice Age had reasons to be stressed. They faced not only a drastically changing world brought about by rapid climate change, but also the arrival of a new threat: weapon-wielding humans that hunted them for food.

Together, these three factors—disease, climate change and humans—might have been too much for the creatures. Weakened by tuberculosis, the beasts would have been less able to ward off other diseases, and the crippling bone damage would have affected their ability to walk.

"Extinction is usually not a one-phenomenon event," Rothschild told LiveScience.

A route of infection

But how did North American mastodons first get tuberculosis, a disease whose first known documentation is in a 500,000-year-old buffalo in China?

Rothschild thinks he knows the answer. In a separate study, he and Larry Martin from the Natural History Museum in Kansas found similar tuberculosis-caused bone damage in North American bovids, a group of animals that included bison, musk oxen and bighorn sheep.

Tuberculosis appears to have been just as prevalent in the bovids as in the mastodons, but the record of infection for this group of animals stretches back much further—at least 75,000 years.

Bison and other bovids are believed to have originated in Asia and crossed into North America using the Bering Land Bridge, which connected the two continents. Humans made the same journey much later.

The researchers speculate that some of the bovids were probably already infected with tuberculosis when they migrated into the New World. Once in North America, the bovids could have spread to mastodons and other species, possibly even humans, Rothschild said.

Both the mastodon and bovid studies will be detailed in upcoming issues of the science journal Naturwissenchaften.