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Mammoth Facts

Mammoths ['mă-məths]

Extinct elephants that had curved tusks and a sloping back.

Meet the Mammoths

3D rendering of 3 mammoths in a field of grass

What is a mammoth? You won’t see any mammoths outdoors or in zoos, because mammoths are extinct. But these huge animals once roamed the earth. They belong to the scientific order of mammals called Proboscidea. All members of the Proboscidea order have trunks that they use to obtain food and water. Over the last 55 million years, there have been over 150 kinds of proboscideans that lived on the earth at different times, including ancient mastodons and mammoths. Today, the only living proboscideans are the African elephant and Asian elephant. Modern elephants, the largest living land animals, are close cousins of mammoths.

The word 'mammoth' comes from two words from an old Russian language: 'maa,' which means earth, and 'mutt,' which means mole or burrower. When farmers found gigantic bones buried in their fields, they thought that the bones belonged to enormous burrowing animals that lived underground. Today, the English word “mammoth” refers not only to the animal, but also is used to describe anything that is huge.

Diagram of different mammoth species sizes compared to humans

Mammoths belong to the scientific genus Mammuthus. Long ago, there may have been as many as ten different species of mammoths who lived in various places on the earth. The mammoth species we are most familiar with are the Woolly Mammoth (mammuthus primigenius) and the Columbian Mammoth (mammathus columbi), both of which lived in North America.

When and Where Did Mammoths Live?

The earliest mammoths lived in Africa about five million years ago. In time, they spread to other parts of the earth. Fossils of mammoths have been found throughout Asia, Europe, Africa and North America. Some mammoth species lived in warm climates, while others were adapted to colder temperatures.

Rendering of wooly mammoth walking through a snow field

The Pleistocene Epoch began about 1.8 million years ago and lasted until about 10,000 years ago. During this time there was a series of Ice Ages where much of Earth’s northern hemisphere was covered with ice sheets and glaciers, and a large part of the earth’s water was frozen. The last Ice Age spanned the period between 110,000 to 10,000 years ago. Nearly one-third of the earth’s land, including the current locations of cities such as New York, Chicago and Seattle, was covered by ice. Other parts of the land were frozen tundra or cold, dry grasslands known as “mammoth steppe.”

During this time, the Columbian mammoth inhabited the middle parts of what is now the United States and the woolly mammoth thrived in northern cold regions across the globe. The woolly mammoth was the most widespread of all mammoths and was the last species of mammoth to live on the earth. Although most mammoth populations became extinct near the end of the Ice Age about 11,000 years ago, small groups of woolly mammoths survived on remote islands. The last woolly mammoths lived on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean until about 3,700 years ago – this was hundreds of years after ancient Egyptians had built the pyramids!

Giants of the Ice Age

How large were mammoths? Mammoths were BIG animals! Their weight ranged from 5 to 10 tons! Different types of mammoths were of different sizes, and females were slightly smaller than males. Woolly mammoths were about 9-11 feet (2.7-3.4 meters) tall at the shoulder, similar in size to a modern elephant. Columbian mammoths were about 13 feet (4 meters) tall at the shoulder. The largest of all mammals, the steppe mammoth of northern Eurasia, grew to 15 feet (4.5 meters,) while the smallest, the pygmy mammoth, was about 4-5 feet (1-1.5 meters) tall. The smaller size of island-dwelling mammoths was an adaptation suited for their isolated locations. Since island animals cannot travel widely in search of food, smaller mammoths that required less food to survive evolved there.

Rendering of the skeletal form of a wooly mammoth

What did mammoths look like? Mammoths had a single dome on the tops of their heads and a long, flexible trunk that they used for eating and drinking. Some mammoths had little hair, like elephants today, while other mammoths were covered with fur. The shaggy woolly mammoth had two layers of fur to keep it warm in the extreme cold temperatures of its habitat, which could go as low as -50 degrees Fahrenheit (-45 Celsius.) The woolly mammoth had both a thick, long outercoat and a fine, short undercoat. It also had a layer of insulating fat and a lump on its back that stored fat to provide energy when food was scarce.

The body structure of mammoths was similar to that of elephants, but mammoths had shorter tails and smaller ears that may have helped them in their cold environment. While modern elephants have large ears that they use to fan their bodies, mammoths’ smaller ears helped prevent heat from escaping their bodies.

Rendering of a wooly mammoth with huge tusks

All mammoths had long, curved tusks. These tusks were actually incisor teeth that extended from the mouth. Tusks were used for digging under snow and ice to reach food. They may also have been used in warning off rivals and fighting to establish dominance. Female tusks generally grew to 5-6 feet, while male tusks grew to 8-9 feet. But woolly mammoth tusks have been found that are more than 15 feet long! A cross section of a tusk reveals growth rings that indicate the mammoth’s age, so tusks help scientists identify the age of the mammoth at the time of death. The growth rings also indicate how healthy the animal was. Researchers have also found that the inner surface of one tusk tends to be more worn than the other. This could mean that mammoths were “right-tusked” or “left-tusked.”

Mammoths also had four ridged molar teeth that were especially good for grinding tough vegetation. Mammoths grew 6 sets of these teeth over their lifetimes, as worn-down teeth were replaced. One way that scientists identify mammoth species is from the number of enamel ridges on their molars.

What did mammoths eat? Mammoths were herbivores or plant-eaters. They ate grasses, shrubs, herbs, leaves, flowering plants and twigs. Some species grazed primarily on grasses, while others ate bark and leaves from trees such as willows, fir and alder. An adult mammoth may have eaten 400 pounds of vegetation a day!

Rendering of wooly mammoths traveling of a herd

How did mammoth live together? Scientists believe that, like modern elephants, mammoths probably traveled in family groups of 10-15 individuals. These herds were composed of females and their young. The adults cared for and protected the young mammoths from predators such as saber-tooth cats. Male mammoths left the herds at 10-12 years and probably lived alone or with a few other males. Mammoth herds spent most of their time foraging for food. It is believed that, like elephants, mammoths communicated both by body movements and by sounds that included loud trumpeting and deep rumbling. Mammoths had an approximate life span of 60-70 years.

Mammoths and People

Dinosaurs lived on the earth during what we call the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. They went extinct millions of years before humans appeared on the earth. But much later, during the Pleistocene Epoch, mammoths and early humans both lived on our planet. Take a look at this time scale showing the Pleistocene epoch. Woolly Mammoths (in the north) and Columbian Mammoths (further south) were the mammoth species known to prehistoric people.

Photo of an exhibit of house build of mammoth bones

We know that early humans hunted mammoths. Spear points have been found alongside mammoth fossils. A mammoth hunt would not have been an easy task; it would have taken a lot of planning and cooperation by members of the human group. A mammoth would have provided a large amount of meat that could have fed a band of humans for some time. In addition to hunting, early humans also found and used the remains of mammoths that had died from natural causes or been killed by predators. Many other parts of the mammoth were important to early humans. People used mammoth bones to build shelters and huts, and mammoth skins and fur became roofs and blankets. From the tusks, humans carved tools, harpoons, and spear tips. People also created art objects such as carvings and sculptures. One of the oldest known musical instruments is a 30,000-year-old flute found in Germany, made from mammoth ivory.

Photo of a mammoth cave painting

Paintings of mammoths have been found on cave walls in Europe. One location in France has 158 drawings of mammoths in different poses. Often these cave paintings show the important relationship humans had with mammoths, depicting humans hunting and utilizing mammoth parts.

Why Did Mammoths Become Extinct?

Scientists are not completely sure why mammoths became extinct, but we know that about 10,000 years ago nearly all mammoths, along with other large mammals, disappeared. By the end of the Ice Age, 70% of the world’s largest land species had vanished. The cause of this mass extinction remains something of a mystery.

Photo of mammoth skeleton exhibit
Image location at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

There are several theories about why mammoths became extinct. One possible cause is widespread disease. Another idea is that the impact of a huge comet or meteor caused mass extinction. Yet another theory is that humans killed off the mammoths due to overhunting.

Some paleontologists believe that mammoth extinction was due to climate change. As the Ice Age came to an end, the earth grew warmer and wetter, and the mammoths’ environment changed. Ice melted, temperatures increased, and sea levels rose. The roaming range of mammoths decreased as more lakes and wetlands appeared. Trees and forests began to fill in the open grassland. As the mammoth steppe biome disappeared, so did much of the vegetation that mammoths depended on for food. It may be that these changes happened too quickly for mammoths to adapt. The shrinking habitat and scarce food supply led to reduced numbers of mammoths.

Many scientists now believe it was probably a combination of factors that led to the end of the mammoths. The fast-changing climate and loss of habitat put mammoth populations into a declining trend. Then, human hunting of remaining animals likely contributed to their final extinction. Scientists continue to investigate the mystery of mammoth extinction. What do you think? 

How Do We Know About Mammoths?

If mammoths are extinct, how do we know so much about them? Fortunately, mammoth fossils are abundant. Mammoth remains have been found in Europe, Asia, Africa, and North America. More continue to be discovered every year in locations from Finland to Mexico.

Photo of mammoth bones in sand

The first documented description of a mammoth skeleton happened in 1799. This marked the first time scientists recognized that the elephant-like bones belonged to a separate, extinct animal. Since then, different species of mammoths have been identified. Sometimes only parts of mammoths, such as teeth or ribs, are found, but occasionally complete skeletons are discovered. Fossils have been found by construction workers building subways or leveling land for new houses. They are often found in places where mammoths died, such as tar pits, sinkholes, and riverbanks where they may have been trapped. Sometimes large numbers of mammoth skeletons are found at a single site.

In an Arctic region of Russia called Siberia, mammoth bones, teeth and tusks are a common find. Mammoth ivory is even harvested and traded by local people. In this cold region, frozen soil, known as permafrost, encases the fossils like a giant freezer. When the top layer of permafrost begins to thaw in the spring, mammoth fossils often appear. Our planet’s current warming trend means that more mammoth remains are being exposed. Mammoth remains are found not only by scientists, but by ordinary people. Even kids can be discoverers! In 2012, an 11-year-old boy in Russia was walking his dog when he stumbled over the remains of a woolly mammoth.

Photo of Lyuba, baby mammoth mummy
Photo of Lyuba, baby mammoth mummy

Sometimes scientists are able to study not only bones, but actual mummified, frozen carcasses. When these woolly mammoths died during the Ice Age, they were trapped in ice and remained frozen in very cold parts of the world. Some whole mammoths have been completely preserved for almost 30,000 years. With these intact mammoths, scientists are able to study everything from hair to skin to the contents of the stomach, revealing the mammoth’s last meal. One of the best-preserved specimens is the baby mammoth known as Lyuba. When Lyuba was discovered by a Siberian reindeer herder in 2007, she was almost perfectly intact – even her eyelashes were there! Learn more and see photographs of Lyuba. A similar frozen baby mammoth, known as Nunchoga, was found in 2022 by gold miners in Canada and is the most complete mammoth carcass ever found in North America.

Thanks to abundant fossils, frozen carcasses, and cave paintings by humans, scientists know more about the woolly mammoth than any other prehistoric animal.

Mammoth Scientists in Action

Scientists who study past life on earth are called paleontologists. The work of mammoth paleontologists includes searching for mammoth remains, excavating them, and studying the remains to learn more about how mammoths lived and what their environment was like.

Photo of scientists excavating mammoth bones

Paleontologists may work for museums, universities, or research centers. Some may focus on the work of excavation, where they remove and measure fossils. Others specialize in lab work, where they clean, sort and prepare fossil specimens. Others analyze the fossils to determine the age, size and health of the mammoth.

Paleontologists all over the world investigate mammoth evidence to learn more about what the world was like when mammoths lived, and what kinds of adaptations allowed them to successfully survive. Would you like to be a paleontologist who studies mammoths? Learn more from this conversation with a scientist who does research on mammoth fossils.

Mammoths in Idaho

Columbian mammoths lived in what is now Idaho during the Pleistocene epoch, just as they did in other western states. Mammoth fossils are often found in unexpected ways.

In 1994, heavy equipment operators were working at Tolo Lake near Grangeville. The work crew uncovered a gigantic bone and called in some experts to take a look. It turned out that the four-foot-long fossil was the thigh bone of Columbian mammoth. Further investigation found the remains of at least nine mammoths, and scientists believe there could be up to 200 mammoth skeletons buried beneath the lake.

In 2014, on the eroded banks of the American Falls Reservoir in eastern Idaho, a mammoth skull and 12-foot-long tusk were discovered. Paleontologists believe that this mammoth skeleton is about 70,000 years old. Remains of other Ice Age mammals, including saber-tooth cats, giant sloths, and ancient camels, have been found in the same area.

Photo of mammoth tooth
Mammoth tooth found in Owl Cave, Idaho Courtesy Idaho Museum of Natural History

In 2018, a Kimberly resident was digging a hole to create a backyard pond when he discovered an intact mammoth tusk. In Owl Cave near Idaho Falls, mammoth bones and teeth have been found along with human-made spear points. Researchers are studying these discoveries to learn more about Idaho during the Pleistocene epoch.

Paleontologists believe there are plenty of other mammoth fossils to be found in Idaho. So keep your eyes open!

Could Mammoths Be Brought Back?

No mammoths have walked on the earth for thousands of years, but recently some people have proposed bringing woolly mammoths back again in a process called “de-extinction.” Could it really be possible?

The theory is that because woolly mammoths are so closely related to modern elephants, it might be possible to take genetic material from an ancient woolly mammoth and combine it with that of an Asian elephant. The result would be a hybrid mammoth-elephant with some woolly mammoth traits, such as small ears, layers of fat, and long shaggy hair.

Rendering of a mammoth herd walking through a snowy wood

Why would we want to bring mammoths back? Some scientists believe that “resurrecting” mammoths could help meet the challenge of a warming planet. In our current time of climate change, the Siberian permafrost is thawing as temperatures rise, releasing carbon dioxide into the air which in turn warms the planet. During the Ice Age, herds of grazing mammoths acted as “ecosystem engineers” by knocking down trees and shrubs, encouraging the growth of vast “mammoth steppe” grasslands that reflected more sunlight and kept ground temperatures cooler. By maintaining their grassland home, they helped preserve the frozen, carbon-rich permafrost beneath. If herds of mammoths were reintroduced into the Siberian tundra, the hope is that grasslands could be restored, thereby reducing the melting of permafrost, lowering temperatures, and locking away heat-trapping carbon dioxide.

Could it work? No one knows for sure. There are many technical obstacles to be overcome. And even if it was possible, should humans bring back an extinct species? How would that affect existing plant and animal species? These are important questions. The next several years will bring many new developments in the fields of genetic engineering and mammoth research.