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Jack Williams helps solve mystery of last mammoths' disappearance

June 10, 2013

Jack Williams, a UW-Madison professor of geography and director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, is part of a team of researchers studying the survival and ultimate demise of wooly mammoths on St. Paul Island, Alaska.

Mammoths survived on the island for nearly 2,000 years after the last mainland mammoths disappeared from Siberia 8,700 years ago. 

Jack Williams and researchers on St. Paul Island Alaskas
Jack Williams (center) and colleagues
drive a sediment corer into the lake
Photo: Jessica Marshall

In March, the researchers collected sediment cores from a frozen crater lake on the island – what would have been a primary watering hole for the mammoths. Pollen grains and other evidence from within layers of the sediment will help the team to reconstruct the past and give a fairly precise date for the mammoth’s extinction.

Writer Jessica Marshall accompanied the team to Alaska and documented their work for Discover Magazine. Read her June 5 article, “Hunting for Clues to Why the Last Mammoths Disappeared.”

Williams is one of many Center for Climatic Research scientists who lead the way in the field of paleoclimatology and paleoecology. By combining powerful climate models with data from ancient clues such as fossil pollen, lake sediments and tree rings, these historical ecologists work to reconstruct past climates and ecosystems. 

Their findings can help us understand the causes of 21st century climate change – which may result in new and strange climates very different from any experienced today – and the effects on plant and animal communities.