Woolly Mammoths: Characteristics, Habitat and Diet

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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 on Neanderthals: Neandertals on Trial, from PBS pbs.org/wgbh/nova; The Neanderthal Museum neanderthal.de/en/ ; 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 ; Hall of Human Origins American Museum of Natural History amnh.org/exhibitions ; The Bradshaw Foundation bradshawfoundation.com ; Britannica Human Evolution britannica.com ; Human Evolution handprint.com ; University of California Museum of Anthropology ucmp.berkeley.edu; John Hawks' Anthropology Weblog johnhawks.net/ ; New Scientist: Human Evolution newscientist.com/article-topic/human-evolution

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

Amy Grisdale wrote in How It Works: One excellent method of animal preservation is freezing. Cold weather grinds the speed of organic decomposition to a halt by preventing the growth of bacteria that would otherwise feed on the decaying flesh. Although Earth is about 11 degrees Fahrenheit (6 degrees Celsius) warmer than it was during the last ice age, which ended around 20,000 years ago, several ancient creatures have been found in the frozen areas of Russia, Asia and North America, with their bodies intact. The presence of food in the stomachs of these ice age animals indicates that their bodies were frozen rapidly, preventing decay. [Source: Amy Grisdale, How It Works June 5, 2021]

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. In 2012, an 11 year old Russian kid discovered the remnants of what turned out to be a very well preserved 30,000 year old woolly mammoth in the area where he walked his dogs.

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

In 1796, French Zoologist Baron Georges Cuvier was the first to identify the Woolly Mammoth as an extinct species of elephant.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 Cuvier concluded, independently, that the bones belonged to an extinct species. Later the woolly mammoth was considered to be a distinct genus, and so renamed Mammuthus primigenius. [Source: ucmp.berkeley.edu]

Genetics reveal mammoths in Siberia are the ancestors of both woolly mammoths and the mammoths that later occupied North America. According to Business Insider: “Mammoths and living elephants diverged from a common ancestor around 5.3 million years ago, according to a genetic study from 2018. By calculating the number of mutations in the ancient mammoths' DNA, the study authors could estimate how much time had passed between that separation and the mammoth's birth. “The more differences there are between lineages, the more time that has elapsed," Alfred Roca, an animal scientist from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, told Insider. [Source: Aylin Woodward, Business Insider, February 18, 2021]

According to the University of California, Berkeley: “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

Similar in size and features to Asian elephants, except with more hair, adult woolly mammoths were approximately three meters (10 feet) tall and weighed about 5450 kilograms (six tons. Newborns weighed approximately 90 kilograms (200 pounds) at birth. [Source: extinct-animals-facts.com]

Woolly mammoth lived in extremely cold, arctic environments. They were well adapted to survive there. As their name suggests, they were covered with fur but what really kept them warm was about 10 centimeters (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 extend 180 centimeters (71 inches) while those of woolly mammoths only extend about 30 centimeters (12 inches). Blood samples taken by scientists have determined that the hemoglobin of the woolly mammoth was 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 4.5 meters (15 feet) in length long. It has been theorized that they would have been used for pushing away ice and snow to get food as well as for 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]

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.” |::|

different kinds of mammoth

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.”

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.

1,000-Kilometer Mammoth Migration Gleaned from 14,000-Year-Old Tusk

In January 2024, scientists announced they had retraced the migration of a female woolly mammoth from her birthplace in present-day Canada to eastern central Alaska, where she met her end around 14,000 years ago at the hands of hunter-gatherers. Sascha Pare wrote in Live Science: The mammoth, whose name Élmayuujey'eh translates to "hella lookin" in the aboriginal Kaska language, was likely killed by early Beringian hunter-gatherers when she was 20 years old. Her existence is known thanks to a complete tusk discovered at Swan Point, one of the oldest archaeological sites in the Americas. [Source: Sascha Pare, Live Science, January 18, 2024]

Élmayuujey'eh, or Elma for short, was born toward the end of the last ice age in what is now the Canadian province of the Yukon, where she likely stayed for the first decade of her life. A new analysis of the mammoth's tusk suggests she then set off across the frozen landscape, covering roughly 620 miles (1,000 kilometers) in under three years. "That's a huge amount of movement for a single mammoth," study co-author Hendrik Poinar, a professor of anthropology at McMaster University in Canada and the director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Center, said in a video released by the university. Elma trekked all the way into Alaska and eventually slowed down, Poinar said. Her remains indicate she was closely related to both a juvenile and a newborn woolly mammoth whose bones were also unearthed at Swan Point. The trio may have belonged to one of two matriarchal herds that roamed an area within 6.2 miles (10 km) of Swan Point, according to the study, published Wednesday (Jan. 17) in the journal Science Advances.

To piece Elma's life together, researchers split her tusk lengthwise and examined thin layers of ivory that formed like the rings of a tree trunk throughout her years. The proportion of different versions of chemical elements, or isotopes, in these layers contained valuable information about the mammoth's diet and location, enabling the team to retrace her steps. The researchers also analyzed ancient DNA in Elma's tusk and compared it with the remains of eight other woolly mammoths found in and around Swan Point, including the two youngsters. Their results revealed the mammoths belonged to at least two distinct herds that may have gathered in the region along with other mammoth herds — a congregation that would have attracted humans.

"Indigenous hunters clearly saw that the mammoths were using this as a really important location for feeding," Poinar said. "The data to me suggest that these were Indigenous people that appreciated, looked at, loved these phenomenal beasts walking on this landscape. But it would make sense too, that in times of need, that you would kill them — a mammoth like that could provide food for a huge number of people over a long period of time." Elma's remains indicate she was in the prime of early adulthood and well nourished at the time of her death. She likely died in late summer or early autumn, which coincides with when humans would have set up their seasonal hunting camp at Swan Point and suggests she died at the hands of hunters, according to the study.

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." ~

Extinction of Woolly Mammoths

The last Woolly mammoths died out only 3,800 years ago (700 years after the pyramids) on the Wrangel island north of Siberia. The Woolly mammoths that lived on the island were smaller than other Woolly mammoths. They stood only six feet at the shoulder. Animals that evolve on islands are usually smaller than their mainland counterparts.

It is not clear why the Woolly mammoths became extinct possible explanations include overhunting by humans, rapid climate change, a mysterious virus, perhaps some combination of these. Many Woolly mammoths are believed to have died out after the end of the most recent ice age. It has been suggested they may have been done in by human hunters and a diet of low-nutrient mosses that took over the grassland after the Ice Age.

Predation by early men and the shrinking of Ice Age grasslands are both believed to have led to the sudden extinction of the Woolly mammoth, cave bears, mastodons, saber tooth tigers, cave lions, Woolly rhinoceros, steppe bison, giant elk, and the European wild ass. Other species such as the musk ox and saiga antelope managed to survive in only small pockets. The mass extinctions are believed to have been partly the result of these animals having never been hunted by humans and having little fear of them.

A decade-long DNA study published in Nature in October 2021 said climate change not humans was reason whooly mammoths became extinct. In the “large-scale environmental DNA metagenomic study of ancient plant and mammal communities,” led by Professor Eske Willerslev, a Fellow of St John’s College, University of Cambridge, researchers used advanced technology and sequencing to examine prehistoric DNA in “535 permafrost and lake sediment samples from across the Arctic spanning the past 50,000 years.” [Source: Michael Walsh, Nerdist, October 22, 2021]

The Nerdist reported: “The samples came from a 20 year collection in that region where woolly mammoth remains have been found. While the study gets deep into the scientific weeds, the conclusion is far too accessible for all of us. The genetic evidence points to melting icebergs as the leading cause of the animals extinction 4,000 years ago. The increase in water all but eliminated the vegetation they survived on. That was enough to kill them off after they survived for nearly five million years on this planet.

Million-Year-Old Mammoth Teeth Yield Oldest DNA Ever Recovered

In February 2021, scientists announced they had recovered the oldest DNA on record. It was extracted it from the molars of mammoths that roamed northeastern Siberia up to 1.2 million years ago. The researchers said they had recovered and sequenced DNA from the remains of three individual mammoths entombed in permafrost conditions conducive to preservation of ancient genetic material. The remains were discovered starting in the 1970s. New scientific methods made it possible to extract the DNA. Before this the record belonged to an ancient horse with DNA between 560,000 and 780,000 years old. [Source: Reuters Videos, February 18, 2021]

Aylin Woodward wrote in Business Insider: “In their study about the mammoth teeth, the researchers reported that the molars came from two different types of mammoth. One species, the steppe mammoth, is well-known: its descendants were woolly mammoths. The other, according to Love Dalén, a geneticist at the Center for Palaeogenetics in Sweden, is from a "previously unknown mammoth that lived in Siberia around 1.2 million years ago." This second species, Dalén told Insider, interbred with woolly mammoths about 420,000 years ago, which gave rise to the Columbian mammoths that went onto occupy North America. [Source: Aylin Woodward, Business Insider, February 18, 2021]

The study, published in the journal Nature, pinpointed how old the teeth are for the first time. To accomplish this, Dalén's team first looked at the age of the rock deposits where Andrei Sher, a Russian paleontologist, collected the teeth in the 1970s. The researchers named the molar from the previously unknown mammoth species Krestovka, after the place it was found. The rock there is between 1.1 and 1.2 million years old. The other tooth, which the team named Adycha, was pulled from a rock layer dating back between 500,000 and 1.2 million years.

“The researchers compared this geologic dating information with genetic data. Over time, DNA builds up mutations: changes in a species' genetic sequence. Those mutations accrue at a fairly constant rate over time, so researchers can count the number of mutations to figure out how much time has passed since a given evolutionary event, like the point when a species split into two, for example. That method showed that the the Krestova specimen is about 1.65 million years old, while Adycha is around 1.34 million years old. Dalén's team also pulled DNA from a third tooth found in Siberia named Chukochya. It was about 870,000 years old, likely from one of the oldest woolly mammoths.

Dalén has worked with ancient rhino fossils, too. Two years ago, he co-authored a paper that looked at a 1.7-million-year-old rhino tooth. Although that specimen is older than the mammoth molars, Dalén's team was not able to recover DNA from it — only protein. Proteins aren't as informative as DNA, since they only code for a tiny piece of an animal's genetic code. However, DNA degrades over time, especially if it's exposed to heat or sunlight. That's why scientists had never previously found genetic molecules more than hundreds of thousands of years old. Siberia, however, offers a resting place for fossils that increases the chances the DNA inside can survive. “Cold temperatures keep the DNA from degrading, much as a freezer keeps food from spoiling," Roca said.

Even so, the DNA in the mammoth teeth was very fragmented when the researchers pulled it out — "broken into tens of millions of small pieces," according to Dalén. So analyzing it was a challenge, but the achievement creates new opportunities to study how ancient species interbred and evolved. Dalén's group showed it's possible to study the genes of creatures far older than scientists previously thought possible.

“The study authors think that based on what they learned from this work, they'll be equipped to extract DNA that's even older from other fossils that may emerge from the permafrost. “We haven't reached the limit yet. An educated guess would be that we could recover DNA that is 2 million years old, and possibly go even as far back as 2.6 million," Anders Götherström, a molecular archaeologist and co-author of the study, said in a press release. "Before that, there was no permafrost where ancient DNA could have been preserved."

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.”

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 May 2024

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