The Online Library of Knowledge

Age of Mammals


Woolly mammothWoolly mammothMammoths are extinct kinds of elephant, known for their long, curved tusks and, in later species, their shaggy coats. The most familiar species, the woolly mammoth, lived in northern lands during the Pleistocene Ice Ages and finally died out only a few thousand years ago. The woolly mammoth was just one of several species, all descended from the first kind, the South African mammoth, which evolved around 5 million years ago in southern Africa. Because the bodies of many mammoths became frozen soon after their deaths, many have remained extremely well preserved tens of thousands of years later when they are discovered. This is particularly true of woolly mammoths in the vast Siberian permafrost. For this reason, we know a great deal about how these animals lived.

The frozen woolly mammoth calf The frozen woolly mammoth calf "Yuka"
Southern mammoth molarSouthern mammoth molar

Mammoth evolution

Paleontologists can identify different mammoth species from the number of enamel ridges on their molars, their grinding teeth. The early, primitive species of mammoth had few ridges. The number of ridges increased gradually as new species evolved.

African mammoths (Mammuthus africanavus), the second oldest species of mammoth, moved north out of Africa between 3.5 and 3 million years ago, spreading out across Europe and China. There they adapted to a wide range of different environments, including forests and grasslands. A new species, the southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis), split off from African mammoths around 2.5 million years ago.
Southern mammothSouthern mammoth
In East Asia, the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) evolved from the southern mammoth between 2 and 1.5 million years ago. The Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi) evolved from a population of steppe mammoths that crossed into North America 1.5–1 million years ago. The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) evolved from the steppe mammoth in East Asia around 400,000 years ago. It first reached North America about 100,000 years ago.

The American president, Thomas Jefferson, is said to be the first person to have used the word “mammoth” as an adjective to describe something enormous. He used it in 1802, when writing about a four-foot (1.2 m) wheel of cheese that had been sent to him.

© 2020 Q-files Ltd. All rights reserved. Switch to Mobile