Imperial Mammoth Fossils

LATE PLIOCENE TO PLEISTOCENE PERIOD:  4.9 million to 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.

The Imperial Mammoth (Mammuthus imperator) was a massive Ice Age beast, the largest mammoth that ever lived in North America.  It is a contemporary of the Columbian Mammoth and a descendent of Mammuthus meridionalis, an earlier species that migrated across the Bering Land Bridge into North America around one million years ago.  The Mammoth and the Columbian Mammoth are often confused but a way to remember the difference is that Imperial mammoths had tusks that crossed whereas Columbian mammoths did not.  These mammoths ranged from Alaska to Florida and as far south as Mexico and Central America.  While most think of the Woolly Mammoth to be large, it was not and especially when standing alongside the giant Imperial Mammoth.  The Imperial Mammoth stood almost 16 feet at the shoulder as opposed to the Woolly Mammoth who stood only about 9 feet at the shoulder.  The Imperial Mammoth weighed about 8-10 tons and could consume about 700 pounds of vegetation a day.  The life span for a Imperial Mammoth was 60 to 80 years.  They became extinct 17,000 years ago along with all other Proboscideans in North America.  Associated Paleo-Indian stone tools have been found at some fossil sites indicating these massive beasts were hunted by early North American Indians.  The famous scene of mammoths being attacked by Saber Cats in the La Brea tar pits in California are of the Imperial Mammoth.

Mammoths were herbivores.  Their teeth were huge flat molars with a surface that was ideally suited to grinding up hard-to-digest foods such as tough grasses and other thick vegetation.  The 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.  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 set.  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. 

- copyright Paleo Direct

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