The Woolly Mammoth: The great wonder of the Ice Age

File:Hunting Woolly Mammoth.jpg
Despite their size Woolly Mammoths were not invulnerable to attack from predators like these human species.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Hunting_Woolly_Mammoth.jpg

“Alright, so what’s the next animal decided by the voters?”

[See’s that it’s the Woolly Mammoth].

“…..oh boy”.

Woolly Mammoths are HUGE. Not just in size but also with regards to public interest and our knowledge of these mammals. There are dozens upon dozens of scientific papers, journal articles, blog articles, TV documentaries and YouTube videos covering almost every aspect of mammoth biology, behaviour, extinction, evolutionary history and even whether they can be brought back from the dead (more on that later). As a result there is a lot to talk about! There’s so much that I can’t cover everything in just one blog article. So in this article we shall address one basic question; what exactly was a Woolly Mammoth? Furthermore I shall include some facts and stories about Woolly Mammoths that I’ve personally found awesome, interesting, inspiring and thought provoking.

Mammoths have a very long history of discovery, longer than almost any other prehistoric animal. Written records of mammoth fossil finds date back to the 17th century, with one find being recorded from Belgium in 1643. At that time palaeontology wasn’t a recognised field of study and the people who unearthed them thought that they had found the bones of mythical giants. Further remains were brought to the naturalist Sir Hans Sloane in 1728, who studied the remains and published his findings in the “Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society”. This means that Woolly Mammoths were the first prehistoric animals to be studied scientifically! The finds presented to Hans Sloane consisted of tusks and teeth. But they were enough to convince him that they belonged to a type of elephant. However why were elephant bones being found as far north and in as cold a climate as Siberia? It wouldn’t be until the late 18th century when it was deduced that these bones belonged to a new extinct elephant relative; a Mammoth. Some of the earliest Mammoth reconstructions from the 18th century were truly bizarre. One such reconstruction can only be described as a short, round pig with tusks coming out of its narrow snout! This is a far cry from the elephant-like reconstructions of today. Modern day reconstructions of Mammoth species, and the science surrounding them, are put together from evidence not only from fossil bones but also from one of the most exceptionally preserved remains possible in nature; frozen carcasses. These frozen bodies are the result of the poor Mammoths becoming trapped in thick mud. This mud fills the Mammoth’s mouth, nose and throat and combined with the fatigue from the trying to escape the Mammoth perishes. It is then buried under the thick mud and he combination of the cold temperatures (slowing down respiration of decaying bacteria) and the thick, oxygen deficient frozen mud slows down decomposition to a crawl. Therefore when the bodies are unearthed tens of thousands of years later they still have fur, skin, muscle tissue (which is so fresh that it is still edible!) and even internal organs. Some famous examples of frozen Mammoth carcasses include a 2013 specimen (of a 50-60 year old female) from the Stathsky Islands in Siberia that still had blood within it. Another example is a “Golden Mammoth”; a 22,000-50,000 year old “pygmy” Mammoth species (scientifically named “Mammuthus exilis”), only 2 metres tall, discovered in Kotelny Island in Siberia in 2018 that possesses golden strawberry blonde fur. A third example is the Jarkov Mammoth; a 20,000-18,000 year old bull male mammoth discovered in 1997 which is encased in a 23 tonne cube shaped block of ice, except for its tusks sticking out the front. This particular find gained significant internet fame as it is the basis for the “Mammoth Cube” meme. These frozen carcasses are spectacular and each one has its own story to tell regarding their discovery and the life of the Mammoth in question. These stories are so rich and detailed that I have only barely scratched the surface about them in this blog article!

Frozen Mammoth carcasses like this one (The 42,000 year old “Lyuba Mammoth”) are a fantastic way for palaeontologists to study these immense mammals!
Image Credit: James St John, https://www.flickr.com/photos/jsjgeology/34834312015/

The basic body shape of a Woolly Mammoth (known scientifically as “Mammuthus primigenius”) is similar in a few key features with modern elephants, especially Asian Elephants who are the Mammoths closest living relatives. They are four legged herbivores with a domed head, slightly sloped back and a pair of specialised incisor teeth known as tusks. Furthermore they had a mostly grass based diet which they grinded down with a battery of thick, ridged molar teeth. Like elephants, Mammoths possessed a long, flexible trunk that was used for a number of different tasks; from grabbing and pulling vegetation (mainly grasses and flowering plants) towards their mouths, to sensing their environment through smell or touch, to sucking up water to drink and more. However Mammoths differed from elephants in a number of key ways. The most obvious of these was their thick, furry coats, which would grow even thicker and furrier in winter before shedding in summer. This feature was obviously beneficial in keeping them warm in the cold of Ice Age Europe, Asia and North America. Furthermore we know from the discovery of frozen mammoth bodies (and from fascinating cave art made by early humans!) that this coat came in a range of colours from dark brown, to light brown to reddish brown. But it wasn’t just the fur coat that kept them warm. Mammoths also possessed smaller ears and tails compared to modern elephants (to reduce heat loss) and a thick layer of fat that surrounded the entire animal and helped insulated it against the cold by trapping heat inside the animal. These features are typical of large animals living in very cold climates and can sometimes make these animals larger than their warm weather counterparts. This is true of Woolly Mammoths, with their average size coming in at 3-3.5 metres tall and weights of 5-6 tons, which is actually roughly around the same size as a large African Elephant. Woolly Mammoths were by no means the largest Mammoths around though. The Steppe Mammoth (a possible direct ancestor whose fossils have been discovered in the UK) lived up to about 750,000 years ago and could grow even bigger to around 4.5 metres tall and roughly 10.5-14 tonnes in weight. This means that when the Steppe Mammoth evolved into the Woolly Mammoth it actually shrunk to a smaller size! This is probably because of climate change resulting in less available vegetation to support the larger sizes.

Despite their size, weaponry and safety in numbers Woolly Mammoths were by no means impervious to attack. Cave Lions, Wolves, our close cousins the Neanderthals and our own ancestors would have definitely targeted a young or sick Mammoth that was struggling to keep pace with the herd. That being said even a weakened Woolly Mammoth would have been a tough nut to crack. It’s large size and massive tusks would have done considerable damage to these would be predators (even the co-operating, tool using human species). We know that both Neanderthals and Humans hunted Mammoths due to depictions in cave paintings, discoveries of Mammoth bones and tusks that have been altered, and even jewellery and huts made by humans from mammoth bones and tusks. These finds emphasize just how big a part Mammoths were in the lives of these humans, not only as food but also in a cultural and maybe even religious way. Even today Mammoths have marched their way into people’s imaginations through discoveries of their fossil remains and the subsequent reconstructions. Woolly Mammoths are particularly popular in pop culture for a prehistoric animal, being portrayed in numerous books, TV documentaries and even movies (looking at you “Ice Age” and “10,000 years BC”). With how popular they are, it is no wonder that people get excited by the potential of cloning Woolly Mammoths from DNA extracted from their frozen carcasses. This is theoretically possible due to the excellent preservation of the frozen mammoths. Hair from two specimens dating to 20,000-60,000 years old has preserved enough DNA to sequence half of the complete genome of a Woolly Mammoth. It’s perfectly understandable why people are excited, Imagine being able to see such an iconic animal brought back to life for everyone to see again! Even if the animal would only be a hybrid of a Mammoth and an Asian Elephant, made of half, or part of a Mammoth. I’m sure seeing a Woolly Mammoth again will give people the world over the same sense of awe and wonder that their distant ancestors must have felt when they saw Mammoths at their peak. But bringing back an extinct animal opens a whole can of worms when it comes to the ethics surrounding it. If scientists can bring Mammoths back from the dead like this, should it be for a more scientifically valid reason than just “because it would be cool”? Should the purpose instead be to learn more and confirm aspects about Mammoth biology, appearance and behaviour that is impossible with just fossils (e.g. specific herd behaviour, sounds etc.). Furthermore at the end of the day you’re bringing a large extinct mammal into the modern world where it may be difficult for it to live in. Is there a habitat in the world large enough and with the right conditions for a population of de-extinct Mammoths? Or would this small population spend all of their lives in zoos or safari parks across the world? Regardless of whether we can or will resurrect Woolly Mammoths, sequencing their genome has already told us much about their evolutionary history and life appearance. For example we know from their DNA that Mammoths are more closely related to Asian Elephants than to African Elephants and that Mammoths and Asian Elephants diverged away from each other around 5-4 million years ago. Furthermore, DNA evidence has told us that while Mammoths had a range of coat colours some were more prevalent than others, with the Dark Brown colouration being the most common. This is similar to how some human hair and eye colours are more common than others. What’s certain is that the more Mammoth DNA is sequenced, the more discoveries will be made!

An excellent painting of a small herd of Woolly Mammoths!
Image Credit: Kira Sokolovskaia, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A_Herd_of_Mammoths_-_Kira_Sokolovskaia.jpg

Put all these aspects of biology and lifestyle together, and what you get is an incredibly successful herbivore. For roughly 400,000-450,000 years large Woolly Mammoth herds, consisting of mainly females, their young and led by a matriarch, would have been a common sight across Western Europe (including the UK, France and Spain), to Eastern Europe and Siberia, to Western North America. But sadly, no species lasts forever, and this was true of the Woolly Mammoths. The last surviving population, a pygmy subspecies living on Wrangel Island in Northern Siberia, became extinct as recently as 4,000 years ago. Humans have been blamed for the extinction of the Woolly Mammoths, with the theory being that extensive overhunting was too much for the dwindling Mammoth population to recover from. However while human hunting would have affected their numbers it is unlikely that humans were the sole, number one reason for their extinction. Instead it is believed that extensive climate change caused a reduction in the huge Mammoth steppe grassland that they relied on. This were replaced by forested environments, a habitat that was not as suitable for a large herbivore who was predominantly a grazer. As a result the Mammoth populations was in a steady decline leading up to their extinction, and genetic studies show that there was a reduction in genetic diversity up to the end of the last glacial period 10,000 years ago.

So there you have it. That is what a Woolly Mammoth was. A remarkably successful prehistoric animal that managed not only to adapt to, but to thrive in the freezing cold conditions of the Ice Age. They may be gone from this world (for now perhaps) but they have left a rich legacy through fossils and a deep mark in many people’s imaginations. There is no denying that Woolly Mammoths have cemented themselves as one of the most well-known and famous prehistoric animal of all time!

A Woolly Mammoth skeleton on display at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois, USA
Image Credit: Jonathan Chen, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Woolly_Mammoth-Field_Museum.jpg

References/Further Reading

•An article from the Washington post, written by Henry Nicholls, detailing the evolutionary history of the Woolly Mammoth

https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/science/frozen-remains-help-explain-the-life-and-eventual-extinction-of-the-woolly-mammoth/2011/03/29/AFOPWeMD_story.html

Nicholls, Henry, “Frozen remains help explain the life and eventual extinction of the woolly mammoth”, Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/science/frozen-remains-help-explain-the-life-and-eventual-extinction-of-the-woolly-mammoth/2011/03/29/AFOPWeMD_story.html

• An article written by David Robson for NewScientist detailing the sequencing of half of a Woolly Mammoth genome in 2008.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16081-frozen-hair-gives-up-first-mammoth-genome/?ignored=irrelevant

Robson, David, “Frozen hair gives up first mammoth genome”, NewScientist, www.newscientist.com, https://www.newscientist.com/article/dn16081-frozen-hair-gives-up-first-mammoth-genome/?ignored=irrelevant

• A video by the excellent Ben G Thomas YouTube channel that details 5 frozen carcasses. One of the carcasses covered is the Jarkov Mammoth (aka the “Mammoth Cube”) with the others consisting of frozen Cave Lions and the recently discovered frozen Cave Bear

• A fact file from the Prehistoric Wildlife page on Woolly Mammoth. Prehistoric Wildlife is a fantastic resource for information on prehistoric animals and I’ve used it as a resource for a lot of my blog articles.

http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/m/mammuthus-primigenius-woolly-mammoth.html

Prehistoric Wildlife, “Mammuthus primigenius

(Woolly mammoth)”, www.prehistoric-wildlife.com,

http://www.prehistoric-wildlife.com/species/m/mammuthus-primigenius-woolly-mammoth.html

• A Siberian Times article about the “Golden Mammoth”; a frozen pygmy Mammoth with golden/strawberry blonde fur

https://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/scientists-discover-unique-carcass-of-extinct-pygmy-woolly-mammoth-on-island-off-siberian-coast/

Siberian Times, “Scientists discover unique carcass of extinct ‘pygmy’ woolly mammoth on island off Siberian coast”, www.siberiantimes.com, 12th August, 2018, https://siberiantimes.com/other/others/news/scientists-discover-unique-carcass-of-extinct-pygmy-woolly-mammoth-on-island-off-siberian-coast/

• A National Geographic article, written by Tom Mueller in May 2009, about the “Ice Baby”, including history of its discovery and how it became preserved in the thick frozen mud.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2009/05/mammoths/

Mueller, Tom, “Ice Baby”, National Geographic, http://www.nationalgeographic.com, May, 2009, https://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2009/05/mammoths/