Woolly Mammoths and What We Have Learned From Their Fossils

Large Woolly Mammoth
The extinct woolly mammoth was similar in size to today’s elephants.

Woolly Mammoths have lived on Earth since 5 million years ago to just 4,500 years ago. There were several species of mammoths, not all hair-covered, but the most widespread was the species Mammuthus primigenius, the Woolly Mammoth you will be most familiar with. These creatures were about the size of modern-day African elephants. While this is large by today’s standards, it was small compared to other mammoth species, some of which weighed more than twice that of the Woolly Mammoth, such as Mammuthus sungari.


While the word “Mammoth” connotes size and strength today, its etymological origin may surprise you. Some of the first fossils were found in Estonia and “Mammoth” is derived from two Estonian words, “maa” meaning Earth and “mutt” meaning mole. The farmers who found the fossils though that they belonged to large moles.  Fossils, especially of extinct animals, are always important finds since from fossils we can imagine and get a hint of what the animal ate, where they lived, and how they lived.  We can learn not only about the individual animal but also about the entire species.

Skeleton of a large woolly mammoth
The skeleton of a large woolly mammoth.

For example, from fossils scientists know that their huge tusks sometimes grew up to 9 feet in length and are thought to serve dual purpose. For one thing, they would have been effective in protecting the animal against predators, such as the Sabre-toothed Tiger, but they also served to attract mates. Scientists have observed that often one tusk is more worn than the other, and not always the same side. This has led to the speculation that some Mammoths were right-tusked and some left-tusked, much as we have a dominant hand. The age of the Mammoth can also be determined by studying their tusks. Like tree rings, layers of tusk grow every years and by counting them, scientists can figure out how old the Mammoth was when they died. This has led to the discovery that Mammoths could live up to 80 years, with an average short lifespan still being 60 years.

Mammoths are believed to have lived in family herds, just live present-day elephants, and to have migrated for food. Their diets consisted of leaves, bushes, and grass — up to 700 pounds of it every day.  They required huge amounts of vegetation to sustain their large bodies.

The remains of Mammoths have been found throughout Europe, Asia, and North America, judging from cave paintings in Britain and France, to Siberia, to Northern North America. These areas would have been icy and frigid, the opposite of the habitats of modern-day elephants, Africa and India. Their thick fur coat would have allowed them to survive during the Ice Age and their large bodies would have stored boy heat better than smaller animals. However, that means that they would have been susceptible to the warming of the globe just like other megafauna, even if they weren’t large compared to their descendants. Human hunting also played some role in their extinction, as it occurred as humans were finding their way to North America. The size of that role is subject to debate, though with our modern track record, I’d say it was an important factor in their extinction event.

Mammoths have been found preserved in the permafrost in Russia and, as well as providing great new source of information to learn from, it also has raised the question and the possibility of bringing back the species through an African elephant surrogate mother. With our current technology, this remains a fantasy, but it does give us time to consider the effects of advancing down this road.  Obviously this idea is hotly debated in many circles and brings up not only scientific but emotional and moral issues as well.

Leave a comment below letting us know what you think, or if you have something interesting to add to our discussion of Woolly Mammoths. As always, that you for reading and, until next time, goodbye!

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