Ancient Meteor Blast Peppered Mammoths With "Shrapnel"

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The researchers believe the damage was caused by micrometeorites, each less than a millimeter in size, thrown off by an object that collided with Earth.

The researchers found fossilized meteorites in the holes and determined that they were rich in iron and nickel but poor in titanium—chemical traits that suggest celestial and not earthly origins, they say.

West also discovered that the tiny rocks were highly magnetic. When he suspended a magnet on a string over the holes, the magnet held fast.

The team additionally found that the bison skull showed bone growth around the holes, suggesting that the animal had survived the blast.

Catastrophic Event

Firestone said the evidence corroborates previous work done by Ian Barnes, a paleobiologist at Royal Holloway University of London.

In a paper published in the journal Current Biology in June of this year, Barnes reported molecular evidence for a die-off of mammoths around the time of the newly suspected impact.

"We are pretty certain there was one event that occurred in that region," Firestone said.

Barnes agreed the data so far could suggest a connection, but he said it's tenuous at best and more information is needed.

"Brown bears underwent a local extinction in Alaska 35,000 years ago, and there may be some turnover or reduction of the Alaskan mammoth population around 35,000 [years ago], but that data hasn't been published yet," he said.

"Whether it only happened in North America or farther afield, I don't have the data for that yet."

More Tusks Ahead

Firestone and his colleagues expect to submit their work for publication in a scientific journal in the coming year.

Meanwhile, the early evidence has already raised some perplexing questions.

"The big mystery is the nature of the impact," Firestone said.

"We don't know whether a meteor exploded or what happened. It's confounding the impact [experts]."

Barnes pointed out there have been plenty of hazards for Earth's creatures aside from meteor blasts, including volcanic eruptions and rapid climate change.

(Read related story: "Volcano Theory of Dino Die-Off Gets New Support" [November 5, 2007].)

Celestial pockmarks notwithstanding, Firestone hesitated to pin mass extinction on any one event.

"There are all sorts of events that might cause a reduction in population size, so I'm cautious about … actually ascribing causation," he said.

Nevertheless, Barnes called the findings "pretty extraordinary," particularly because they were uncovered so unexpectedly.

"You got to give it to them—it's pretty exciting stuff," he said. "Pretty amazing."

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