Woolly Mammoths: Characteristics, Habitat and Diet

Home | Category: Prehistoric Cave Animals / Prehistoric Cave Animals


Woolly mammoths lived from 400,000 to 3,900 years ago and for a while lived at the same time as American mastodons (who lived from 3.75 million to 11,500 years ago) and African elephants and Asian elephants (who first appeared about 4 million years ago). Woolly mammoths were like elephants adapted for cold weather. They had thick skin and a heavy Woolly coat. Reaching a height of 14 feet at the shoulder and possessing upward curving tusks, considerably larger than those of an elephant, they lived in North America and Eurasia.

Scientists have a good idea what woolly mammoths looked like based on the discovery of frozen woolly mammoth carcasses in Alaska and Siberia as well as bones and other remains found over a large area. In 2013, scientists found a baby woolly mammoth entombed in ice in Russia. Many woolly mammoth teeth and tusks have been discovered, some with human engravings on them. well. Early humans killed Woolly Mammoths for a number of reasons. They ate the meat, but they also made art, homes and tools out of the bones and tusks. [Source: extinct-animals-facts.com]

The ancestors of woolly mammoths and modern-day elephants originated in equatorial Africa. But between 1.2 and 2.0 million years ago, members of the mammoth lineage migrated to higher latitudes. Mammoths differ from elephants in a number of ways, such as having long and gracefully curved tusks instead of straight tusks and a domed skull instead of a flat head.

There were several species of mammoth. On those found in North Americas, Discovery News reported: “The woolly mammoth was a smaller furrier beast, that lived in the north closer to the glaciers of the Ice Ages, from Alaska through Canada, and east to the Great Lakes and New England. The larger Columbian mammoth lived further south. It inhabited the western and southern portion of the U.S. as far south as Florida, and nearly to Chiapas in Mexico. The mammoths should not be confused with the American mastodon (Mammut americanum), another ancient elephant from North and Central America. [Source: Discovery News, June 1, 2011]

Websites and Resources on Hominins and Human Origins: Smithsonian Human Origins Program humanorigins.si.edu ; Institute of Human Origins iho.asu.edu ; Becoming Human University of Arizona site becominghuman.org ; Talk Origins Index talkorigins.org/origins ; Last updated 2006. Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; Wikipedia article on Human Evolution Wikipedia ; Human Evolution Images evolution-textbook.org; Hominin Species talkorigins.org ; Paleoanthropology Links talkorigins.org ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; National Geographic Map of Human Migrations genographic.nationalgeographic.com ; Humin Origins Washington State University wsu.edu/gened/learn-modules ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; BBC The evolution of man" bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life; "Bones, Stones and Genes: The Origin of Modern Humans" (Video lecture series). Howard Hughes Medical Institute.; Human Evolution Timeline ArchaeologyInfo.com ; Walking with Cavemen (BBC) bbc.co.uk/sn/prehistoric_life ; PBS Evolution: Humans pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/humans; PBS: Human Evolution Library www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library; Human Evolution: you try it, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/aso/tryit/evolution; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution; Fossil Sites and Organizations: The Paleoanthropology Society paleoanthro.org; Institute of Human Origins (Don Johanson's organization) iho.asu.edu/; The Leakey Foundation leakeyfoundation.org; The Stone Age Institute stoneageinstitute.org; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Turkana Basin Institute turkanabasin.org; Koobi Fora Research Project kfrp.com; Maropeng Cradle of Humankind, South Africa maropeng.co.za ; Blombus Cave Project web.archive.org/web; Journals: Journal of Human Evolution journals.elsevier.com/; American Journal of Physical Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Evolutionary Anthropology onlinelibrary.wiley.com; Comptes Rendus Palevol journals.elsevier.com/ ; PaleoAnthropology paleoanthro.org.

Siberian Woolly Mammoths and Their Ivory

engraving on a mammoth tusk

During the Pleistocene Era (10,000 to 180,000 years) ago, large numbers of Woolly mammoths roamed the forests and tundra of Siberia. When Ice-Age glaciers moved across Siberia, many Woolly mammoths fell into icy pools of water and were entombed in permafrost. Woolly mammoths thrived particularly well in Siberia, where they grazed on steppe grasses along with bisons and other large herbivores that in turn were fed on by cave lions, saber-toothed tigers and wolves. Animals of large size and with lots of hair thrived in the frigid weather. The animals endured through ice ages and periods of global warming.

In Siberia, Russians have made millions mining ice-preserved Woolly mammoth tusks from animals that died between 10,000 and 40,000 years ago. The brown grade ivory sold for US$150 a pound in 1992, compared to $400 for elephant ivory, and is legal since no animals are being killed. The ivory can be carved into figures. It is estimated that 600,000 tons of tusks may be frozen in Siberia. [National Geographic Earth Almanac, January 1992].

Woolly mammoth ivory is prized by carvers. An entire tusk can sell for as much as $50,000 at an auction. The sale of Woolly mammoth ivory is not illegal because the animal is already extinct. Sculptor Semen Pesterov is a ivory carver. But he doesn't use walrus or elephant ivory; he uses the tusks of extinct Woolly mammoth frozen in the Siberia permafrost.

During the summer teams outfit with amphibious vehicles, helicopters, river boats and truck head to the tundra in northeastern Siberia to search for the tusks of Woolly mammoths. The best finds are restored with auto body filler and varnish and sold on the international market. Lesser quality bones and tusks ate carved into chess sets and other items. The lowest quality pieces are ground into powder and used to make traditional Chinese medicines.

The best preserved Woolly mammoths fell into ice crevasses and were immediately frozen or drowned in small lakes, settling into the permafrost at the bottom. Rich mammoth hunting areas in Siberia include region around Chokurdakh, a settlement along the Indirka River, and Duvannyi Yar, near Cherski. Most of these places can only be reached by plane or helicopter. So many Woolly mammoth's been found that some people eat mammoth steaks. There are also stories of 200,000-year-old bison being found and the smell attracting wolves who ate the meat.

Woolly Mammoth Finds

The nearly complete carcass of an adult Woolly mammoth frozen 23,000 years ago in the Siberia permafrost of Taimyr Peninsula was dug out in September 1999 by a French-led expedition. The specimen was named the "Jarkov Mammoth" after nine-year old boy in the family of Siberian reindeer herders who found it. The Jarkov Mammoth stood 11 feet at the shoulder and was estimated to be around 40 years old. Encased in 23-ton block of ice and earth, the carcass was lifted by Russia's largest helicopter and flown to ice caves in Khatnga, Siberia where a sub-freezing laboratory was made. Scientists carefully defrosted the carcass over a period of months using hair dryers before studying it..

In November 2003, the well-preserved head of a Woolly mammoth was found frozen in the permafrost by hunters 1,200 kilometers north of Yakutsk, complete with eyes, ears and body hair, and part of its trunk. Its head and a well-preserved foot were displayed at the World Exposition in Aichi Japan in 2005. The were hopes that the specimen was in good enough shape that DNA could be extracted for cloning. Dima was the nave given to a 12,000-year-old Woolly mammoth found by fishermen in Siberia in 1977.

There are enough people studying mammoths to justify periodic international conference devoted entirely to them. Scientist are looking for samples in good enough condition so that the DNA is relatively intact and can be analyzed. DNA from 20,000- to 30,000-year-old mammoths as well as horses and musk oxen have been found in clumps of permafrost soil in Siberia.

frozen mammoth in Siberia

History of Elephants

The ancestor of elephants, mammoths and mastodons was a pig-size animal with an upper lip like a tapir that lived about 55 million years ago. As these creatures evolved their heads got small and their upper lip became longer and more flexible until it became a trunk.

More than 250 species of elephants and elephant-like creatures have roamed the earth in the past. Ancestors of the elephant include the Moeritherum (a pig-like animal that lived 40 million to 30 million years ago), the Piomia (a pig-like animal with a long snout that lived 37 million to 28 million years ago), Deinotherium (an elephant-like animal with downward-hooking tusks that lived 24 million to 1.8 million years ago), the Primelephas (an animal that looked like a modern elephant and lived from 6.2 million to 5 million years ago).

African elephants and Asian elephants diverged from a common ancestor about 6 million years ago. They lived at the same time as American mastodons (who lived from 3.75 million to 11,500 years ago) and Woolly mammoths (who lived from 400,000 to 3,900 years ago). Ancestors of elephants, such as mastodons and Woolly mammoths, have been found all the continents except Antarctica and Australia. In 2009, a well-preserved, 200,000-year-old skeleton of a giant prehistoric elephant was found in Java, which itself was unusual in that bones usually decompose quickly in humid, tropical climates. The animal stood four meters tall and weighed more than 10 tons, which was closer in size to a Woolly mammoth than a modern Asian elephants. Another Indonesian, Flores, was the home of stegodons---extinct elephant ancestors which were about the size of a cow, or about a tenth of the size of an Asian elephant.

The Asia elephant once ranged as far west as the Tigris and Euphrates region of Syria and Iraq and as far north as Manchuria in China. Based on mitochondrial DNA evidence, there are two main lineages of Asian elephants that split from each other about three million years ago. Most belong to the “alpha” lineage. Those in peninsular Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo belong to the “beta” lineage. For reasons that are not clear, Both lineages are found on Sri Lanka.

Mammoth History

Columbian mammoth

According to the University of California, Berkeley: “Mammoths were first described by German scientist Johann Friedrich Blumenback in 1799. He gave the name Elephas primigenius to elephant-like bones that had been found in Europe. Both Blumenback and Baron Georges Cuvier of France concluded, independently, that the bones belonged to an extinct species. The bones belonged to the woolly mammoth, later considered to be a distinct genus, and so renamed Mammuthus primigenius. [Source: ucmp.berkeley.edu]

“Mammoths stem from an ancestral species called M. africanavus, the African mammoth. These mammoths lived in northern Africa and disappeared about 3 or 4 million years ago. Descendants of these mammoths moved north and eventually covered most of Eurasia. These were M. meridionalis, the “southern mammoths.”

“In the early Pleistocene, about 1.8 million years ago, M. meridionalis took advantage of low sea levels (during an Ice Age) and crossed into North America via a temporary land bridge across the Bering Strait. The southern mammoth then radiated throughout North America. In the Middle Pleistocene, a new North American species evolved, the imperial mammoth, M. imperator (though some question whether M. imperator is a legitimate genus). Then, in the Late Pleistocene, the Columbian mammoth, M. columbi (also known as the Jefferson mammoth, M. jeffersoni), appeared. Its range covered the present United States and as far south as Nicaragua and Honduras.

“Back in Eurasia, another species of mammoth, the steppe mammoth (M. trogontherii), lived from 200,000 to 135,000 years ago. And later in the Pleistocene, the woolly mammoth (M. primigenius), which incidentally was the smallest of the mammoths, made its debut. With the advent of another Ice Age and low sea levels lasting from 35,000 to 18,000 years ago, woolly mammoths were able to enter North America via a new land corridor across the Bering Strait. Woolly mammoths’ southern migration extended as far south as present-day Kansas.

Dwarf forms of mammoth are known from fossils found on islands: M. exilis from California’s Channel Islands stood only about four to six feet at the shoulder. The last Woolly mammoths were also dwarf versions. They lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. About 500 to 1000 of them lived there until just before 1700 BC when they fully became extinct.

Woolly Mammoth Characteristics and Adaptions for Cold

According to extinct-animals-facts.com: “Similar in size and features to the Asian elephant, the adult woolly mammoth was approximately 10 feet tall (3 meters) and weighted about 6 tons (5443 kg). Newborns weighed approximately 200 pounds (90kg) at birth. [Source: extinct-animals-facts.com /**/]

“The woolly mammoth lived in extremely cold, arctic environments. They became well adapted to survive in this type of habitat. As the name suggests, the woolly mammoth was covered with fur but to really keep them warm, they had about four inches of pure fat for insulation underneath their skin. /**/

“The ears and tail of the woolly mammoth were relatively short so they would not get frostbite and to minimize heat loss. Modern day elephants have ears that reach 180 cm (71") where the woolly mammoth's ears only reached about 30 cm (12"). Blood samples taken by scientists have determined that the hemoglobin of the woolly mammoth was even adapted to the cold environment, allowing the animal's tissue to be supplied with oxygen no matter what the temperature. /**/

“The long prominent tusks of the woolly mammoth could reach up to 15 feet (4.5 meters) long. It is theorized that they would have been used for pushing away ice and snow as well as fighting and defending. Similar to the rings on a tree, scientists can determine the age and health of a woolly mammoth by the rings on its tusks.” Woolly mammoth calves had tusks, which contain information about what the animals ate. By examining calf tusks scientists determined that mammoths nursed with their mothers for at least five years. /**/

According to the University of California, Berkeley: “The bones of fossil mammoths and mastodons can often look very similar — they are best differentiated on the basis of their teeth (compare mammoth and mastodon teeth by browsing the images at The Paleontology Portal). While mammoths had ridged molars, primarily for grazing on grasses, mastodon molars had blunt, cone-shaped cusps for browsing on trees and shrubs. Mastodons were smaller than mammoths, reaching about ten feet at the shoulder, and their tusks were straighter and more parallel. Mastodons were about the size of modern elephants, though their bodies were somewhat longer and their legs shorter.” [Source: ucmp.berkeley.edu]

Woolly Mammoth Diet

Woolly mammoths were herbivores, eating a variety of grasses, leaves, fruits, berries, nuts, and twigs. The jaw and teeth of the woolly mammoth were more vertical than modern elephants and it is believed that it allowed them to more easily feed on grass.

According to the University of California, Berkeley: “ If mammoths were similar to elephants in their eating habits, they were very remarkable beasts.Consider the following facts about modern elephants: 1) spend 16 to 18 hours a day either feeding or moving toward a source of food or water; 2) consume between 130 to 660 pounds (60 to 300 kg) of food each day; 3) drink between 16 to 40 gallons (60 to 160 l) of water per day; 4) produce between 310 to 400 pounds (140 to 180 kg) of dung per day. “Since most mammoths were larger than modern elephants, these numbers must have been higher for mammoths! [Source: ucmp.berkeley.edu]

“From the preserved dung of Columbian mammoths found in a Utah cave, a mammoth’s diet consisted primarily of grasses, sedges, and rushes. Just 5% included saltbush wood and fruits, cactus fragments, sagebrush wood, water birch, and blue spruce. So, though primarily a grazer, the Columbian mammoth did a bit of browsing as well.”

Mammoths Had 'Anti-freeze Blood'

Mammoths had a form of "anti-freeze" blood to keep their bodies supplied with oxygen at freezing temperatures, an adaption that may have been crucial in allowing the ancestors of mammoths to exploit new, colder environments during Pleistocene times.. Paul Rincon of BBC wrote: “Nature Genetics reports that scientists "resurrected" a woolly mammoth blood protein to come to their finding. This protein, known as haemoglobin, is found in red blood cells, where it binds to and carries oxygen. The team found that mammoths possessed a genetic adaptation allowing their haemoglobin to release oxygen into the body even at low temperatures. The ability of haemoglobin to release oxygen to the body's tissues is generally inhibited by the cold. [Source: Paul Rincon, BBC News, May 2, 2010 |::|]

“The researchers sequenced haemoglobin genes from the DNA of three Siberian mammoths, tens of thousands of years old, which were preserved in the permafrost. The mammoth DNA sequences were converted into RNA (a molecule similar to DNA which is central to the production of proteins) and inserted into E. coli bacteria. The bacteria faithfully manufactured the mammoth protein. "The resulting haemoglobin molecules are no different than 'going back in time' and taking a blood sample from a real mammoth," said co-author Kevin Campbell, from the University of Manitoba in Canada. |::|

“Scientists then tested the "revived" mammoth proteins and found three distinctive changes in the haemoglobin sequence allowed mammoth blood to deliver oxygen to cells even at very low temperatures. This is something the haemoglobin in living elephants cannot do. "It has been remarkable to bring a complex protein from an extinct species back to life and discover important changes not found in any living species," said co-author Alan Cooper, director of the Australian Centre for Ancient DNA at the University of Adelaide. Without their genetic adaptation, mammoths would have lost more energy in winter, forcing them to replace that energy by eating more.” |::|

Mother Mammoths Nursed Their Young for Three Years

Researchers, led by University of Western Ontario paleontologist Jessica Metcalfe, determined that mammoth infants were weaned as late as three years after birth based on studying woolly mammoth teeth found in northern Yukon. Randy Boswell wrote in Postmedia News: “That means they were nursed on mother's milk much longer than modern elephants, apparently in response to the prolonged darkness, scanty vegetation in their far-north habitat and the ever-present threat of being killed by prehistoric wildcats. [Source: Randy Boswell, Postmedia News, December 21, 2010 ]

“The team's findings, published in the latest issue of the journal Palaeo 3, highlight a previously unknown vulnerability in mammoths as the species struggled to adapt to climate change, attacks by predators (including humans) and other challenges that led to their disappearance at the end of the last ice age. "Today, a leading cause of infant elephant deaths in Myanmar is insufficient maternal milk production," the study states. "Woolly mammoths may have been more vulnerable to the effects of climate change and human hunting than modern elephants not only because of their harsher environment, but also because of the metabolic demands of lactation and prolonged nursing, especially during the longer winter months."

“Along with Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula and UWO researcher Fred Longstaffe, Metcalfe examined the chemical composition of about two dozen preserved teeth from infant and adult mammoths found around Old Crow, a fossil-rich Yukon site well known for shedding light on ice-age ecology. The researchers concluded that the prolonged darkness in northern Canada, as well as the necessity of protecting young mammoths from night-hunting predators, such as the scimitar cat, were likely significant factors in shaping the physiology and maternal behaviour of mammoths. "In modern Africa, lions can hunt baby elephants but not adults. . . . They can kill babies and, by and large, they tend to be successful when they hunt at night because they have adapted night vision," Metcalfe stated in a summary of the study. "In Old Crow, where you have long, long hours of darkness, the infants are going to be more vulnerable, so the mothers nursed longer to keep them close."

““Because of the "relatively poor quantity and quality of plant food available on the mammoth steppe during winter, combined with the greater predation risk attributable to short daylight hours," conditions would have led young mammoths to "rely solely on milk" for as long as possible. But extended nursing of baby mammoths came with a cost, the researchers believe, as nutrition-challenged mothers fought a losing battle against the various forces driving the species toward extinction.

Hybrid Mammoth DNA Found

In 2011, scientists announced that they had found hybrid mammoth DNA. Tim Wall wrote in Discovery News, June 1, 2011“Woolly and Columbian mammoths, two species of elephant that once lived in North America, may have interbred. [Source: Tim Wall, Discovery News, June 1, 2011]

“Mitochondrial DNA analysis of a Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) found in Utah suggests that its mitochondrial DNA was nearly identical to that of the woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius). "We think this individual may have been a woolly-Columbian hybrid," said Jacob Enk of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, the group that led the research, which was recently published in Genome Biology. "Living African elephant species interbreed where their ranges adjoin, with males of the bigger species out-competing the smaller for mates," he explained in a press release. The mitochondrial genomes in the smaller females then show up in populations of the larger species. "Since woolly and Columbian ranges periodically overlapped in time and space, it's likely that they engaged in similar behaviour and left a similar genetic signal," Enk said.

“Modern examples of this can be seen where two varieties of elephant in Africa encounter each other. The larger savanna elephant (Loxodonta africana africana) and the smaller forest elephant (Loxodonta africana cyclotis) are capable of interbreeding. Genetic evidence has fueled a debate that these two modern elephants are indeed separate species. The hybridization of mammoths may explain other fossils that look like intermediates between the two species. These fossils were sometimes assigned to the species Mammathus jeffersonii, but further research may show them to be hybrids of the woolly and Columbian mammoths.”

World's Smallest Mammoth Found in Crete

dwarf mammoth

In 2012 scientists announced that the world's smallest mammoth on Crete, with an adult being approximately the same size a newborn modern elephant. GrrlScientist reported: “In 1904, some remarkable elephant fossils were unearthed on Cape Malekas on the island of Crete by Dorothea Bate, a famous fossil hunter. Some of these fossils appeared to be from a mammoth. [Source: GrrlScientist, The Guardian, May 10, 2012 ~]

“But for many years, all dwarf elephant fossils found on Mediterranean islands, including these from Crete, were thought to be descendants of the mainland straight-tusked elephant, Palaeoloxodon antiquus. Indeed, this European elephant was the ancestor of nearly all other extinct dwarf elephants found on a number of Mediterranean islands including Sicily, Malta and Cyprus. But not everyone in the scientific community was convinced that the Bate fossils were from Palaeoloxodon elephants. ~

“Fossil elephant researcher, Victoria Herridge, at the Natural History Museum in London, found the original coastal cliff on Crete's Cape Malekas where Bate found her fossils. Some of these fossils were exposed and included "[m]ultiple disarticulated bone and tooth fragments", writes Dr Herridge and her co-author, Adrian M. Lister, in their newly-published paper. And as Dr Herridge suspected, this treasure trove of fossils contained the remains of a mammoth, Mammuthus creticus — the smallest mammoth yet identified. But how did Drs Herridge & Lister determine that these fossils were from a mammoth and not an elephant? This tooth was key: as teeth wear down during an animal's life, the surface develops characteristic enamel 'rings'. Mammoth teeth differ from elephant teeth by having three oval rings instead of the one oval ring seen on elephant teeth: The structure of the fossil tooth not only shows that it came from a Mammuthus, but it is most similar to earlier mammoth taxa; most likely M. meridionalis or possibly M. rumanus, rather than the more derived M. trogontherii. ~

“M. meridionalis lived in Europe from 2.5 million to 800,000 years ago. "But we couldn't rule out another species, M. rumanus," explains Dr Herridge. "M. rumanus is the earliest species of mammoth found in Europe (as long ago as 3.5 million years). This means the ancestor of M. creticus could have reached Crete as long ago as 3.5 million years." ~

“Even though the diminutive size of the fossil teeth gave the team a rough idea of the size of the mammoth, the team found a fossil humerus (upper arm) bone that provided concrete evidence as to this mammoth's small size. The bone was completely fused, meaning that growth had stopped, so the team knew this bone came from an adult animal. By measuring this bone (figure 1f) and extrapolating from there, the team found that this particular adult mammoth was just 1.1m tall — roughly the size of a modern baby African or Asian elephant:

“Based on size, they estimated that the adult weighed about 300kg — half the weight of the previously known smallest dwarf mammoth, M. lamarmorai. Although they didn't test fossil dates in this research, the team's findings suggest M. creticus may have been on Crete longer than previously thought. "I hadn't previously considered M. rumanus as a plausible ancestor because it was so old, geologically speaking, and so the evidence here has reminded me it doesn't do well to make assumptions in science!" Dr Herridge explained. "In fact, this has now got us wondering about how long ago M. creticus arrived on Crete. Perhaps it got there much earlier than people generally think." ~

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons except dwarf mammoth, Nature

Text Sources: National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Nature, Scientific American. Live Science, Discover magazine, Discovery News, Natural History magazine, Archaeology magazine, The New Yorker, Time, BBC, The Guardian, Reuters, AP, AFP and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.