Woolly Mammoth

The Mammuthus Columbi
Woolly Mammoth—A herd of woolly mammoth wondering across the steppe must have been an imposing sight. (Phil Miller)

Scientific name: Mammuthus primigenius Scientific classification: Phylum: Chordata Class: Mammalia Order: Proboscidea Family: Elephantidae

When did it become extinct? The woolly mammoth is thought to have become extinct around 10,000 to 12,000 years ago, although a dwarf race of this species survived until around 1700 B.c.

Where did it live? The woolly mammoth roamed over a huge area of the prehistoric earth, including northern North America and northern Eurasia.

What African safari would be complete without a sighting of an elephant? We associate these majestic animals, the largest of all land-living animals, with warm places, yet thousands of years ago, the world was a very different place—a much chillier place—and a long-dead relative of the elephants we know today actually thrived in bitterly cold conditions. The species was the woolly mammoth, and in essence, it was an elephant covered in a dense pelage of shaggy hair.

A fully grown woolly mammoth was around 3 m tall at the shoulder and probably weighed in the region of 7 tonnes, which is quite a lot smaller than a large African bull elephant (3.5 m tall and 10 tonnes in weight), but its dense fur made it look very imposing. The remains of the woolly mammoth have been found in many locations, and some of them are in excellent condition, which allows us to build a very good picture of what the living animal was like. We know that the dense fur of the mammoth was around 50 cm long, and we also know what color this fur was—some of these huge beasts had dark brown fur, while others had pale ginger or even blonde fur. The fur of the woolly mammoth, coupled with an 8-cm layer of fat beneath the skin, served as insulation from the terrible cold of the ice age tundra. Sebaceous glands in the skin of the mammoth exuded greasy oil into the shaggy coat to enhance its insulating properties. Another interesting adaptation protected them from the cold still further: a patch of hairy skin that hung over the anus to prevent the escape of precious warmth. The African elephants are renowned for their ears, which in large specimens can be around 1.8 m long, but the woolly mammoth's ears were only around 30 cm long—yet another adaptation to a cold climate as a greater surface area of skin will allow more of the body's heat to escape. Large ears help an African elephant to stay cool, but the mammoth was struggling to stay warm.

Apart from its shaggy fur, the other striking feature of the woolly mammoth was its enormous, curving tusks. The tusks of elephants are actually teeth that have grown out of the mouth, and in the woolly mammoth, they kept on growing until they were around 4 m long. Like in modern elephants, these tusks were probably important to establish a pecking order among the males when it came to the breeding season, which may well have been at the end of July and the beginning of August. Tusks are a measure of the owner's strength, and they can be flaunted to assert dominance without the need for fighting and the potential injury it may bring; however, when two evenly matched males came head to head, a fight was probably inevitable. The front of the mammoth's head was quite flat; therefore males could have butted heads and locked tusks. Using all of their strength, the male mammoths wrestled with the intent of digging the tusks into the flanks of their opponent.

As the woolly mammoth is no longer alive, we can only make assumptions about the way it lived, but it is highly likely that it formed family groups like those formed by the African and Indian elephants—close-knit groups that are led by a female and comprise adult females and young. Like elephants, mature male woolly mammoths probably banded together in loose groups until the breeding season arrived, when they searched out the female-led groups. As in elephants, pregnancy in mammoths probably lasted around 22 months, with a single infant being born at the end of that time.

The remains of the woolly mammoth that have been found even tell us what this animal ate. The tundra where the woolly mammoth lived was devoid of large trees, and these huge animals probably relied on coarse grasses and low-growing shrubs, such as dwarf birch and willow, for sustenance. As tundra vegetation is far from the most nutritious plant matter, it is reasonable to assume that the woolly mammoth needed to consume huge quantities of this tough vegetation to sustain its great bulk.

The woolly mammoth was around for at least 290,000 years; however, its reign ended at the end of the last glaciation, which in geological terms was quite abrupt, but as the mammoth had survived numerous cycles of climate change, where long glaciations have been interspersed with shorter, warmer intervals, something else must have been happening. It has been observed that the disappearance of many of the world's large land-living animals at the end of the last ice age coincides with the dispersal of humans north from more temperate latitudes and into the New World. As the ice age relaxed its grip, humans edged farther and farther north into areas that had previously been inhospitable, and we know that these prehistoric people, our ancestors, hunted the mammoth for its meat and all the other parts of its body, which their skilled hands could turn into clothes, tools, and shelters. It is very possible that the human species contributed to the extinction of many majestic animals, including the woolly mammoth.

♦ Ten species of mammoth have been identified from around the world, and the group is thought to have evolved from an ancestor that lived in North Africa about 5 million years ago.

♦ The woolly mammoth was not nearly as large as some of the other mammoth species. The steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii), the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), and the imperial mammoth (Mammuthus imperator) were all very large, and the latter species could have measured 5 m at the shoulder and weighed in excess of 13 tonnes. The Songhua River mammoth (Mammuthus sungari) may be one of the largest terrestrial mammals ever, at 17 tonnes.

♦ A population of dwarf woolly mammoths survived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean north of Siberia for a long time after the rest of the species went extinct— possibly as recently as 1700 B.c. Other island populations of dwarf mammoths existed on Sardinia and the islands off the coast of California.

♦ Woolly mammoths are almost unique among the prehistoric fauna for their incredibly well-preserved remains. Numerous specimens—adults and young—have been found in the permafrost of what is now Siberia. The most recent find was a perfectly preserved body of a 10,000-year-old female mammoth calf, found near the Yuribei River in Russia. To date, 39 preserved woolly mammoths have been found, but only four of these are complete. A trade still exists today in the ivory tusks from these long-dead animals.

♦ Scientists have speculated that it would be possible to bring the mammoth back to life using the technology of cloning and the tissue from the mammoths that have been frozen in permafrost. This is an interesting notion, but the flesh of the frozen specimens, even when newly discovered, is badly decayed, and the DNA is unsuitable for cloning.

Further Reading: Guthrie, R. D. "Reconstructions of Woolly Mammoth Life History ." In The World of Elephants—International Congress, Rome, 276-79. 2001; Gee, H. "Evolution: Memories of Mammoths." Nature 9 (2006): 439; Solow, A. R., D. L. Roberts, and K. M. Robbirt. "On the Pleistocene Extinctions of Alaskan Mammoths and Horses." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 103 (2006): 7351-53; Lister, A. M., and A. V. Sher. "The Origin and Evolution of the Wooly Mammoth." Science 294 (2001): 1094-97.

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  • ottone
    Why did mammoths become extinct?
    8 years ago
  • Tuija Virta
    What year did the wooly mammoth disapear?
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  • Guendalina
    When did wooly mammoths disappear?
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  • Barbara
    When did the woolly mammoth become extinct?
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  • pansy
    When did the animal the woolly mammoth disappear?
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