LATE PLEISTOCENE: 150,000 - 10,000 years ago
Emerging 55 million
years ago, the group of mammals called Proboscideans are identified by
the presence of tusks and a trunk and include mammoths, mastodons and
elephants. The oldest mammoth remains have placed the beginnings
of the beasts in Africa but eventually, they migrated to Europe and
Asia. Around 1.7 million years ago, the Ancestral mammoth began
reaching North America and later evolved into the Columbian mammoth,
otherwise known as the American mammoth.
Woolly mammoths (Mammuthus
primigenius) were first recorded in Eurasian deposits of the second to
the last Ice Age, approximately 150,000 years ago. Woolly mammoths
descended from the Steppe mammoths (Mammuthus trogontherii).
Over time, the cheek teeth of Woolly mammoths evolved into a design of
more numerous and tightly arranged enamel plates with less thickness.
The tusks of the Woolly mammoth developed a more dramatic curvature and
their overall body size decreased. These changes were advantageous
in surviving the increasingly cold conditions of the last Ice Age.
Such teeth modifications enabled the Woolly mammoths to chew tougher
tundra vegetation. The reduction of body size accompanied by the
reduction of the ears and trunk along with the development of a thicker
pelt enabled the mammoths to survive in the harshness of a frozen
A full grown Woolly
mammoth stood around 10 - 12 feet high at the shoulder and weighed in at 6 - 8
tons. Despite connotations of the word "mammoth"
indicating immense proportions, the Woolly mammoth is actually not the
largest mammoth that ever lived. The Imperial mammoth
was the largest and the North American Columbian mammoth was even larger
than the Woolly mammoth. The Woolly mammoth was about the same size
as a present day Indian elephant but with a layer of fat and
carcasses have been found in frozen tundra which allows us to know what
the heavy coat of the Woolly mammoth was like. Their fur was similar
to that of the musk ox, consisting of long, dark hairs and fine under
wool, with dark-gray skin and an insulating fat layer. It is most
likely that Woolly mammoths molted in summer
like Musk oxen. Another prominent feature of the Woolly mammoth was
a high-domed skull with high-peaked shoulders resulting from the long
spines of the neck vertebrae likely to anchor a large fat deposit.
had smaller ears and a shorter trunk than modern-day elephants. Many
Woolly mammoths have been found with large, elaborately curved
tusks. Both the males and females possessed tusks, but the
females’ tusks were smaller. Tusks began to form at birth and
continued growing throughout life, adding about a 1/4
inch a year in
thickness as they grew. Most of the tusk is comprised of a material
called dentin but in layman's terms, we call it ivory.
The undersides of Woolly
mammoth tusks often show wear, suggesting that they were used in scraping
snow and ice off ground cover vegetation during feeding. Woolly
mammoths also use their tusks for protection against predators, attraction
during mating and as a display of dominance to other Woolly
mammoths. The longest tusk ever found was almost 16 feet and weighs
teeth of a mammoth are amongst the most bizarre teeth of any animal ever
known. From the side, they resemble an extended accordion and are
made up of a row of vertically oriented attached plates that when worn,
create a washboard-like grinding surface. This
surface was ideally suited to grinding up hard-to-digest foods such as
tough grasses and other thick vegetation. A mammoth has four teeth
in its skull, two uppers (one on each side) and two lowers. Over
the course of the life of the animal, six sets of teeth will grow, a
worn set being pushed forward and out to make room for a new and unworn
This characteristic is still true of modern
elephants. A baby mammoth at age
6 will have already had three sets of teeth. By 13 years of age,
the fourth set emerges followed by a fifth set at age 27 years.
The final set of teeth come in around 43 years of age and as it wears
away, the animal eventually starves to death and dies on average between
60 and 80 years of age. Interestingly, the animal's life is
limited by the fact that after the sixth set, no new teeth grow in to
replace the final worn down set and the animal is no longer able to chew
its food. Mammoth teeth can also
tell us the age and species of the creature. Scientists can
approximate age by comparing the length and width of the molars to
corresponding age and tooth size charts from modern elephants. The
species is determined by the number of ridges found in the first four
inches of the flat chewing surface.
the latter years of the last Ice Age, the Woolly mammoth co-existed with
humans such as the Neanderthal and the Cro-Magnon people.
Prehistoric cave paintings in France and Spain have been found with images
of the Woolly mammoth including hunting scenes. Throughout world
regions where Woolly mammoths existed at the same times as humans, kill
sites have been discovered where mammoth carcasses had been
butchered. At these sites, scientists have found both
tools and mammoth
bones displaying gashes and cuts, evidence of cutting and scraping
by humans using these stone tools.
It is believed that
the end of the last Ice Age and the warming of the Earth caused the
Woolly mammoths to die out at the end of the Pleistocene Period.
The DNA of an extinct wooly mammoth is 95% identical to an Indian
elephant. With recent discoveries of wooly mammoth remains frozen
in tundra, there are ongoing attempts to clone intact DNA with that of
the modern Indian elephant.
mammoth remains have been found in
northern regions of North America, Eurasia and Europe.
Misspellings: Mammuth, mammooth, mammath,
- copyright Paleo Direct, Inc. All images and text on this
site are protected and may not be used in any way. Images of the
Woolly Mammoth skeleton were taken at the
Naturalis Biodiversity Center, Holland.