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Mammoth vs. Elephant: What's the Difference?

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key point

  • The main difference between elephant and mammoth is that mammoth is extinct.
  • Elephants live in Africa and Asia, while mammoths are spread over a wider territory.
  • Mammoths have thick wool coats, while elephants do not.

Elephants and mammoths are closely related animals belonging to the same order: Elephants, which belong to a larger group called Proboscidae. Of the three families in this order, the Asian elephant, the African elephant, and the mammoth, only the elephant family is alive today. So, what's the difference that separates an elephant from a mammoth?

Both animals are close relatives. Although most people think of elephants as descendants of mammoths, they are actually cousins rather than descendants. Elephants and mammoths are both docile herbivores with a long history of human interaction. Although male elephants sometimes fight over dominance, breeding rights and territory, they are generally peaceful animals. Mammoths likely used their tusks in a similar way, and they behaved similarly. In this article, we'll discuss all the differences between elephants and mammoths, including why elephants survived while mammoths became extinct.

Comparing Elephants and Mammoths

mastodon vs mammoth
Mammoths became extinct about 4000 years ago.

©Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com

Elephants and mammoths are very similar creatures, even descended from the same ancestor long ago! They do, however, differ markedly — largely due to differences in the way mammoths adapted to colder environments. Before we dive in, let's talk about the types of elephants alive today.

African Elephants: African elephants have large ears to help them dissipate heat, two extensions of the trunk for grasping, and a drooping back. There are two types of African elephants, the larger African bush elephants that live in savannas, and the smaller African forest elephants that live in dense forest environments.

Asian elephant: Which elephant was most closely related to the woolly mammoth is still being debated, but many believe it may have been the Asian elephant. These elephants have small ears, a rounded back, and only one trunk extension. Female Asian elephants have no tusks. Asian elephants are an endangered species.

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There are many mammoth species, including woolly mammoth, pygmy mammoth, and steppe mammoth. All of these species are now extinct.

elephant mammoth
status endangered extinct
Habitat Africa, Asia North America, Asia, Europe
Body round or receding hunchback
fangs The shorter tusks have 1-2 extensions; only male Asian elephants have tusks Tusk with two extensions; both sexes have tusks
ear Asian elephants have smaller ears while African elephants have larger ears Small ears
fur small fur thick fur, sometimes with a double coat

5 Key Differences Between Mammoths and Elephants

Mastodons and woolly mammoths
The woolly mammoth was one of the last woolly mammoths to emerge. The main difference between mammoths and elephants is their thick coats

©iStock.com/leonello

1. The woolly mammoth is extinct

The main difference between these species is that only one is alive. Mammoths became extinct about 4,000 years ago, thanks in large part to rapid climate change and hunting by humans across the globe. Mammoths adapted to the climate of the Ice Age, and as the world warmed and their habitat decreased, they became extinct.

Today, elephants and many other species face the same risk of extinction: climate warming and human stress. This pressure comes from hunting and the loss of the habitat on which elephants depend.

Although all species of elephants are threatened, elephants are still alive today. The Asian elephant is on the endangered species list, while the African bush elephant is endangered, and the African forest elephant is now critically endangered.

It is very important to keep the remaining elephants alive today, otherwise the entire fauna will be wiped from our planet forever.

2. Mammoths had bigger tusks

Mammoths were heavier than elephants and had much longer tusks. Their tusks are more curved and twisted than tusks and can grow up to 16 feet long. By comparison, the longest tusk ever recorded measured 11 feet 7 inches.

Another important variation exists only in Asian elephants: Females have no tusks at all. Like African elephants, mammoths, both male and female, have tusks. They are mainly used for defense, but males also use them in sparring.

Speaking of their trunks, both African elephants and mammoths have (or used to have) two extensions at the end of their trunks, which are (or were) used for grasping. There is only one Asian elephant. These graspable extensions are sensitive enough to develop fine motor skills. Elephants use these extensions in the same way humans use their hands.

Read more  Which Animals are Mammals? A Guide to Understanding Mammals

3. Mammoths have thick fur

If you've ever seen an elephant, you know that their hair is thin, short and thick — they might even appear to have no fur at all. You can't say that about a mammoth. They have thick fur to adapt to the cold environment. Some of them even put on double coats to keep them warm in the harsh winter. These thick coats allowed mammoths to live in very cold regions and thrive where their cousins would have been frozen. Those same thick coats, however, meant they couldn't handle temperatures that got hotter as the climate warmed.

Is an Elephant a Mammal - Baby Elephant and Mom
African forest elephant mother and her calf. Forest elephants live in dense forest habitats

© iStock.com/USO

4. Their habitats are different

Mammoths and elephants are descendants of the same animal. However, at some point in history, mammoths evolved to travel outside the warmer climates of Africa, Asia, and Europe. While elephants stayed in these environments, mammoths traveled as far as North America!

Over time, mammoths adapted to colder climates, so they were able to spread over wider areas than elephants once managed. Mammoths were also larger than elephants, which would have forced them to travel over larger areas in search of adequate food. It takes a lot of food to keep a mammoth happy!

Elephants and Mammoths
Comparison of Mammoth and Asian Elephant

© petrroudny43/Shutterstock.com

5. They have different body types

Mammoths have humps on their backs near the shoulders, but elephants don't. Asian elephants have rounder backs, while African elephants have backs that slope down the middle.

The foreheads of mammoths and Asian elephants are also more distinctive. They both have a distinctly domed forehead, whereas the African elephant's forehead slopes straight down into the torso. African elephants have a less obvious dividing structure between their head and trunk. The forehead of the mammoth is larger than that of any kind of elephant, and it is dome-shaped.

Finally, African elephants have longer ears than Asian elephants or mammoths. These large ears help with dissipation, keeping the animal cool on hot days. They also use their large, flexible ears to keep documents away from their faces. Asian elephants have smaller, rounder ears. Mammoths have the smallest ears of any animal because larger ears are at risk of frostbite in cold weather and use excess body heat to keep warm.

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summarize

Both elephants and mammoths are descended from the same ancestor. They diverged into different species as they tried to adapt to changing environments. Some of these variations work better than others.

adapt mammoth elephant
1. Extinction = failure to adapt alive = successfully adapted
2. Larger, curvier tusks Shorter, thicker tusks
3. cold weather padded jacket Coats are rarely worn in hot climates
4. Cold Grassland Habitat hot plains or jungle
5. Bigger and heavier for better cold resistance Small size and heat dissipation

next…

  • 8 Extinct Animals Found to Live in Minnesota Some amazing fossils have been discovered in Minnesota. Check them out here.
  • Types of Elephants: 3 Types of Elephants Would you like to learn more about these intelligent and charming giants? Check out this article.
  • Where do elephants live? Learn about elephant habitats Learn about elephant habitats and the conditions they live in.

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about the author


Krishna is a lifelong animal owner and advocate. She owns and operates a small farm in upstate New York where she lives with three dogs, four donkeys, a mule and a cat. She holds a BA in Agricultural Technology and has extensive experience in animal health and welfare. When not working with her own animals and tending her farm, Krishna is helping other animal owners with behavior or management issues and teaching regenerative farming practices to nearby farmers.

FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions)

Why did mammoths become extinct?

Mammoths became extinct about 4000 years ago. Their numbers were reduced by human hunters, but eventually became extinct due to climate change. The planet heated up so quickly and violently that mammoths could not adapt to the loss of habitat and food sources.

Of course, elephants did not have to adapt to changing arctic conditions during this time, as they remained in their homelands on the African and Asian continents.

Where can I see elephants?

The best (and easiest!) places to see elephants today are at local zoos, with a focus on conservation of the species.

Never fund the use of elephants for human entertainment, as elephants are often mistreated in these situations.

For example, elephant rides are sometimes advertised. However, elephants are not the same as horses – they were not made to carry humans, and doing so would hurt them. They often suffer from spinal injuries, blisters and infections.

Although shows involving animals are dying, it's important to never go to any show where animals perform "tricks" to amuse the audience. The animals get nothing out of these shows and are often mistreated behind the scenes.

How can we stop elephants from going extinct?

To stop elephant extinction, we must support conservation efforts, fight poaching, and tackle climate change.

Habitat loss and poaching are the biggest threats to elephants right now.

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