A mammoth is a large extinct elephant, typically hairy with a sloping back and long curved tusks.
The fossil record suggests mammoths lived on all continents except Australia and South America.
They lived from the Pliocene epoch from around 5 million years ago into the Holocene at about 4,000 years ago.
They were driven to extinction by environmental factors and possibly human hunting about 10,000 years ago. Small island populations clung on until about 4,000 years ago.
The woolly mammoth is by far the best-known of all mammoths.
The oldest representative of Mammuthus, the South African mammoth, appeared around 5 million years in what is now southern and eastern Africa.
Descendant species of the South African mammoth moved north and continued to propagate into numerous subsequent species, eventually covering most of Eurasia before extending into the North America at least 600,000 years ago.
The last species to emerge, the woolly mammoth, developed about 400,000 years ago in East Asia, with some surviving on Russia‘s Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean until as recently as roughly 3,700 to 4,000 years ago, still extant during the construction of the Great Pyramid of ancient Egypt.
Three species of mammoths lived on the mainland of the United States at the end of the last Ice Age. These were the Columbian mammoth, Jefferson’s mammoth and the woolly mammoth.
Mammoths are thought to have had quite a long lifespan, getting to an average of 60 to 70 years old. Scientists can work out a mammoth’s age from the rings of its tusk in a similar way to judging a tree’s age from its rings.
Most mammoths were about as large as modern elephants – which are about 2.5 to 3 m (8 to 10 ft) high at the shoulder, and rarely exceeding 5 tonnes.
The largest known species reached heights in the region of 4 m (13.1 feet) at the shoulder and weights of up to 8 tonnes.
Many mammoths had a woolly, yellowish brown undercoat about 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick beneath a coarser outer covering of dark brown hair up to 50 cm (20 inches) long. Under the extremely thick skin was a layer of insulating fat at times 8 cm (3 inches) thick.
Both sexes bore tusks. A first, small set appeared at about the age of six months, and these were replaced at about 18 months by the permanent set. Growth of the permanent set was at a rate of about 2.5 to 15.2 cm (1 to 6 in) per year.
The ears, small for an elephant, were probably adaptively advantageous for an animal living in a cold climate – the smaller amount of exposed surface area diminished heat losses.
Mammoths were herbivores and ate mostly grass, but also ate other types of plants and flowers.
Based on studies of their close relatives, the modern elephants, mammoths probably had a gestation period of 22 months, resulting in a single calf being born.
Their social structure was probably the same as that of African and Asian elephants, with females living in herds headed by a matriarch, whilst bulls lived solitary lives or formed loose groups after sexual maturity.
Mammoths figured significantly in the art of primitive humans – cave dwellers in Europe realistically depicted herds of these animals.
Mammoths were sometimes trapped in ice crevasses and covered over – they were frozen, and their bodies were remarkably well preserved. In fact, cases have been reported in which sled dogs actually were fed the meat from frozen mammoth carcasses that had begun to thaw out of the ice that had held them for almost 30,000 years.
Fossil mammoth ivory was previously so abundant that it was exported from Siberia to China and Europe from medieval times.
The word “mammoth” was first used in Europe during the early 17th century, when referring to maimanto tusks discovered in Siberia. John Bell, who was on the Ob River in 1722, said that mammoth tusks were well known in the area. They were called “mammon’s horn” and were often found in washed-out river banks.
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
Baron Georges Cuvier of France concluded, independently, that the bones belonged to an extinct species. The bones belonged to the woolly mammoth, later considered to be a distinct genus, and so renamed Mammuthus primigenius.
Thomas Jefferson, who famously had a keen interest in paleontology, is partially responsible for transforming the word mammoth from a noun describing the prehistoric elephant to an adjective describing anything of surprisingly large size. The first recorded use of the word as an adjective
was in a description of a large wheel of cheese (the “Cheshire Mammoth Cheese”) given to Jefferson in 1802.
Some mammoth experts have suggested that the trade in mammoth ivory should be banned, even though the animals are extinct. They argue that their tusks are often sold as elephant tusks, and thus encourage
overall demand for ivory.
It is estimated that more than 50% of the ivory sold into China, which has has the biggest ivory market in the world, is mammoth ivory. Hong Kong is a major destination, and the ivory is used to make jewellery and other objects, including ornamental tusks.
French adventures heading for the North Pole in 1872 found so many well-preserved mammoth specimens that for a time they lived on mammoth, ‘broiled, roasted and baked’.
Mammoths are one of the most familiar of the ice age mammals. The image of these giant, furry ancestors of the elephant embody the ice age.