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A mammoth is a woolly elephant mammal.

The woolly mammoth is one of the most fascinating prehistoric animals—probably because it went extinct only 4,000 years ago. Remains and tusks of this mammoth are found almost daily across Eurasia and North America. Its closest surviving relative is the Asian elephant — and its DNA is key to keeping the woolly mammoth from extinction. The woolly mammoth is famous for its curved tusks, and mammoth ivory remains a hot commodity for humans today.

mammoth 1

© AZ-Animals.com

steppe mammoth
The steppe mammoth is the ancestor of the woolly mammoth.

© VPales/Shutterstock.com


The oldest representative of the genus Mammoth is the South African mammoth, which arose in what is now South Africa during the Early Pliocene about 5 million years ago. These gigantic land giants carried the same spiraled, twisted tusks as their steppe mammoth descendants. Woolly mammoths began diverging from steppe mammoths in East Asia about 800,000 years ago—making the Asian elephant the only living relative.

Relatives of the steppe mammoth traveled to North America via the Bering Strait land bridge beginning 1.5 million years ago. Eventually, the Columbian mammoth evolved along with several other species, some of which inhabited North America as far south as Mexico. Mammoths adapted to the colder climates of the north, while Columbian mammoths and other groups of smaller species adapted to warmer climates. The species is believed to hybridize.

The woolly mammoth was the most recent ancestor of the first woolly mammoth ever discovered, and its habitat eventually covered much of Eurasia and North America. Some woolly mammoths existed on Wrangel Island in Russia and on the remote Taimyr Peninsula on the Siberian mainland between 3,700 and 4,000 years ago.

Mammoth carcass excavated in Siberia by an expedition sent by the Russian Academy of Sciences, spring 1902, vintage engraving illustration. From Space and Man, 1910.

©Morphart Creation/Shutterstock.com


There is debate about how many species of mammoth there are. They include these ten:

  • South African Mammoths (Mammuthus subplanifrons): The oldest mammoth species in the genus Mammothus appeared in South and East African countries during the Early Pliocene about 5 million years ago, mainly in Ethiopia. It already had the features of its ancestors – including spiraled, twisted tusks and torso.
  • African mammoth (Mammuthus africanavus): The second oldest mammoth species first appeared in the late Pliocene about 3 million years ago and last in the early Pleistocene about 1.65 million years ago. Fossils have been found in Chad, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia.
  • Columbian mammoth (M. columbi): This mammoth inhabited the Americas during the Pleistocene, as far north as the northern United States and as far south as Costa Rica. It was one of the last mammoth species to end up as the woolly mammoth.
  • Cretan pygmy mammoth (M. creticus): The smallest mammoth ever recorded, the skulls of this species have been found on Mediterranean islands and are thought to be the basis of the Cyclops myth in ancient Greece. This woolly mammoth lived on the island of Crete during the late Pleistocene.
  • M. columbi imperator : Another Pleistocene mammoth species that inhabited the Americas from the northern United States southwards to Costa Rica.
  • Jeffersonian mammoth (M. columbi jeffersoni): This mammoth inhabited the western and midwestern United States during the late Pleistocene.
  • Dwarf mammoth (M. exilis): During the late Pleistocene, the pygmy mammoth or Channel Islands mammoth lived on the three Channel Islands in California, USA.
  • Southern mammoth (M. meridionalis): Another Pleistocene-era mammoth, this animal roamed Europe and Central Asia.
  • Steppe mammoth (M. trogontheri): About 1.8 million to 200,000 years ago, during the early and middle Pleistocene, steppe mammoths were distributed over most of northern Eurasia. It evolved from the southern mammoth in Siberia.
  • Wooly Mammoth (M. primigenius): The woolly mammoth lived in the Pleistocene until its extinction in the Holocene. This mammoth, found in Eurasia and North America, may have been the last of the first mammoth species to live 4,000 years ago.
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Mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius)
Mammoths were about the same size as today's African elephants.


description and size

Woolly mammoths were as big as today's African elephants. Males are between 9 and 11 feet at the shoulder, females are slightly smaller – 8.5-9.5 feet at the shoulder. Males can weigh up to 12,000 pounds and females up to 8,000 pounds. A newborn mammoth can weigh up to 200 pounds.

Woolly mammoths were covered in fur, which likely kept them warm in the winter environments they inhabited. Genetic tests have shown that mammoths range in color from golden to dark brown or black. However, they're not sure if the color has an evolutionary advantage. Well-preserved mammoth hair is often orange when found, but researchers believe this is due to ground conditions that altered the pigmentation. Most intriguingly, the genes that researchers used to determine an animal's color are still present in animals today — including humans. The gene makes people develop red hair, while in some other animals it causes yellow or blond hair.

Woolly mammoths had long trunks, like elephants, and huge, curved tusks. Researchers believe they used ivory in a similar way to modern elephants. They can use their tusks to fight, use their trunks to carry items and help forage.

The main difference between mammoths and modern elephants is their ears. Their ears are much smaller, possibly minimizing the chance of frostbite. In addition to tusks, they also have four large molars for grinding food. Their molars are replaced six times in their lifetime.

2 mammoths fight in a snowy field
Like today's elephants, mammoths were herbivores.

©Dotted Yeti/Shutterstock.com

What do mammoths eat?

The woolly mammoth likely ate primarily grasses and sedges—grass-like plants with flowers. However, evidence preserved in mammoth stomachs suggests that they also ate flowers, shrubs, tree material and moss. Different samples showed that what the mammoths ate depended on where they were located.

Some evidence suggests that young mammoths may have eaten feces to boost the growth of a gut biome that would help them digest plants as they grew and stopped drinking their mother's milk.

Because they are so big, they need to eat a lot. Experts believe they had to eat nearly 400 pounds of food a day and could spend up to 20 hours a day looking for food.

Mastodons and woolly mammoths
One of the last woolly mammoths to emerge, the woolly mammoth lived in Asia, Europe and North America.


When and Where Mammoths Lived

Mammoths lived in an environment known as the "mammoth steppe" or "tundra steppe." This region is located in the northern part of what we now call Asia, Europe and North America. In fact, experts are studying two groups of mammoths to determine whether they should belong to two different subspecies. The first group went extinct about 45,000 years ago and stayed closer to the North Pole. The second group went extinct about 12,000 years ago, and bones of this type have been found as far south as China's Shandong province and Spain's Granada.

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Woolly mammoths likely entered North America more than 300,000 years ago via a land bridge over what is now the Bering Strait.

Researchers consider the mammoth to be one of the most successful mammals of its era because it showed up in so many places. They estimated its habitat to be over 33,301,000 km2.

Other mammoth species existed millions of years ago. About 800,000 years ago, mammoths began to diverge from other mammoth species. They became extinct in most places about 10,000 years ago, except for isolated populations on islands where they became extinct 4,000 years ago.

Two dire wolves and a young mammoth
In this realistic re-creation, two dire wolves surround a young mammoth.

©Aunt Spray/Shutterstock.com

threats and predators

As a large animal, mammoths may not have many natural enemies. However, young mammoths and weak or sick animals were vulnerable to wolves, cave hyenas, and the large carnivorous cats of the era. There is some evidence that humans may have hunted mammoths, but it's unclear how common this was. There were other smaller, easier-to-hunt animals available to humans at the time. More commonly in mammoth bones, humans scavenged the remains after a predator had already killed it or died a natural death.

Threats to mammoths also come from the environment. They are sensitive to long winters when food is difficult to find. Their ivory growth rings slow down in winter, proving this. A study of North American mammoth remains found that they most commonly died during winter or spring, when food was least available.

Climate change may also pose a threat to woolly mammoths. The final decline of the mammoth population occurred at the end of the last ice age. However, experts believe that the decline in mammoth populations may also have contributed to the warming of the environment. They no longer eat trees, especially birches, which have sun-absorbing and warming properties. Therefore, birch forests are easier to grow and may warm the environment by 0.2 degrees Celsius. That doesn't sound like much, but it sure made an impact!

Archidiskodon Mammuthus meridionalis
Mammoth skeletons are numerous, with as many as 200 found at one site.

© Shadowgate from Novara, Italy / CC BY 2.0 – License

finds and fossils

Mammoth bones are very rich. A simple search will bring up numerous articles about the discovery of hundreds of mammoth bones in one place or another. In 2020, nearly 200 skeletons were found at a construction site in Mexico City. There are a lot of samples, but there are a few notable ones that have helped scientists learn a lot about mammoths.

Two types of mammoth remains can be found. Skeletons or fossils, as well as actual remains. Many mammoth remains have been found frozen. However, a mammoth with well-preserved soft tissues has been found in Poland. It is naturally mummified in oil seeps.

Frozen mammoth remains from the early 1700s were chopped up and sold to the highest bidder. Some were even fed to dogs in the 1800's! Fortunately, scientists have since found many well-preserved frozen specimens to study.

Some of the most informative frozen mammoths are mammoth calves. These specimens allow us to understand how woolly mammoths grew and how they cared for their young. For example, by studying these specimens, scientists believe that calves were fed for 2-3 years before transitioning to a plant diet.

A frozen mammoth discovered in 2013 still had liquid blood in its abdomen, leading researchers to think its blood might have some resistance to freezing.

Wool mammoths became extinct due to climate change and human impact.

© Mauricio Anton/Creative Commons

Extinction: When and Why did woolly mammoths go extinct?

There are several different theories as to why the mammoth went extinct. One thing everyone can be sure of is when they went extinct. Most died out about 10,000 years ago. However, there are still some isolated populations on the island. They lived on St. Paul Island in Alaska until 5,600 years ago. They lived on Wrangel Island in Russia until about 4000 years ago.

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Determining the cause of the extinction was a bit easier for smaller island populations. Mammoths on São Paulo Island became extinct as their habitat shrank from rising sea levels, which could reduce the amount of freshwater available.

The mammoths on Wrangel Island appear to have died in a catastrophic event, which could have been caused by human landings or climate change. Their disappearance did occur around the same time that humans first came to the island. This pattern can also be seen in some other mammoth populations. For example, in what is now Alaska and the Yukon, mammoths became extinct 1,000 years after humans appeared.

Experts believe the population is on the decline due to shrinking habitats due to climate change. Then, human activity and hunting may have determined their fate.

ivory in a basket
Ivory from mammoths remains a lucrative market.


mammoth ivory

Mammoth ivory remains a hot commodity today. This is partly because it is illegal to trade or sell ivory in many places, so people switch to mammoth ivory. Climate change and human activity are revealing more and more mammoth bones and tusks, especially in Siberia. A lucrative market has developed, mainly for the export of mammoth ivory to China, where expert artisans carve it into beautiful and traditional designs and graphics.

Early humans and Neanderthals used mammoth ivory to make tools and even mammoth bones as building materials. They also used mammoth ivory for spear points.

Three mammoths trek across snow-covered hills.
Scientists believe that reintroducing mammoths to the Arctic tundra could turn them back into grasslands and preserve permafrost.

©Daniel Eskridge/Shutterstock.com

bring back the mammoth

Some want to use the preserved genetic evidence to bring back mammoths. The process is complex. First, the genomes of extinct animals had to be sequenced. Then, the scientists had to edit the DNA of a close relative, meaning one had to exist. Fortunately for mammoths, Asian elephants are a great alternative.

People who want to rebuild woolly mammoths believe their return to our ecosystems could help solve our modern climate change problems. These experts believe that reintroducing herbivores such as mammoths to the current tundra could turn it back into grasslands, which could help preserve the permafrost there. They also think it could help us learn more about how to protect endangered species that already exist today.

resembling a mammoth

african elephant vs asian elephant
Asian elephants are the closest living relatives of mammoths.

Animals similar to mammoths include:

  • Mastodons – Smaller than woolly mammoths, they appeared about 25 million years ago and were probably the ancestors of woolly mammoths.
  • Gomphotheres – huge four-tusk animals that looked similar to modern elephants.
  • Asian Elephant – This is the closest living relative of the mammoth, and there are several different subspecies in Asia today.
  • African Bush Elephant – modern elephant species living in central and southern Africa.
  • African Forest Elephant – A subspecies of the African bush elephant, these elephants live in the forests and grasslands of central Africa.

See all 104 animals that start with W

Mammoths lived between 800,000 and 4,000 years ago.

Experts believe their extinction was caused by a combination of the end of the last ice age and human activity (i.e. hunting).

No, mammoths are mammals.

Yes, the mammoth is an extinct species of elephant. They belong to the same scientific family classification as elephants alive today.

Yes, there were several other mammoth species, most notably the pygmy mammoth, pygmy mammoth, Columbian mammoth, steppe mammoth, and African mammoth.

The main differences between mammoths and elephants are their appearance, history, species, and habitat.