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In Images: Ancient Beasts of the Arctic

Arctic beasts

(Image credit: Photo by Jonathan S. Blair/National Geographic)

A 2014 study in Nature has found that Arctic mega-beasts like the wooly mammoth may have grazed a much more varied landscape than previously thought.

Grassland steppe

mammoth-mastodon

(Image credit: Mauricio Anton)

Previously, researchers thought the Arctic looked like monolithic grassland steppe.

Permafrost cores

permafrost core

(Image credit: Ross MacPhee)

But by analyzing plant DNA in permafrost cores (like the one here from Talmyr, Siberia), the team found that many more wildflower-like plants called forbs were present at the time.

Flowery landscape

arctic

(Image credit: Mauricio Anton)

That suggests the landscape was filled with colorful blooms and a more varied flora than previously thought.

Mammoth tusk

mammoth tusk

(Image credit: Per Möller/Johanna Anjar)

The team also analyzed the gut contents of Pleistocene beasts and found they ate a higher proportion of forbs than thought.

High protein snacks

Tuolumne Meadows

(Image credit: M. Floyd, DOT)

These flowering plants could have provided high-protein, nutritious snacks for beast such as mammoths and rhinos .

Modern diet?

Bison covered in frost

(Image credit: Tim Townsend/US Department of the Interior)

The new results could also mean rethinking how much of different plant types that modern grazers, such as the bison, eat, researchers say.

Tia Ghose
Tia has interned at Science News, Wired.com, and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and has written for the Center for Investigative Reporting, Scientific American, and ScienceNow. She has a master's degree in bioengineering from the University of Washington and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California Santa Cruz.