The first animal that pops into anyone’s head when you say ‘Ice Age’ will be the woolly mammoth. This is the iconic animal of the Pleistocene. There were other large proboscideans lolloping across the landscape, including the mastodon and the incredible gomphotheres, but it’s the woolly mammoths that are dear to our hearts. Their enormous size, the large shaggy coat, and the massive curved tusks has led to fame in films including Ice Age, 10,000BC and of course, the classic 2006 horror Mammoth). The noun, mammoth, has also slipped into the English language to become a well-used, and pretty awesome, adjective. The more we find out about the woolly mammoth, the more awesome it becomes.
Frozen woolly mammoth carcases have been thawing out of the permafrost in Siberia for centuries. The bodies look so fresh that they were thought by the local people to be giant burrowing mole-like creatures. Not burrowing giants, but 40,000 year old woolly mammoths! Preserved in such incredible detail, these frozen specimens have aided this hairy beasts iconic status; it is easier to relate to something that you can see, and unlike many fossils, the frozen mammoths are all flesh. Newly discovered specimens from Siberia are hot topics in the press, such as the incredibly beautiful baby mammoth, Lyuba. Through these amazingly preserved animals we are discovering more about this species anatomy, and increasing our knowledge of how these extraordinary creatures lived.
Around 5 million years ago the mammoth lineage evolved in Africa, with the ancestor of all mammoths Mammuthus subplanifrons. In Europe there were a few different mammoth species, including the Southern mammoth (Mammuthus meridionalis) and the Steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii). But there is only one woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius. This species appears to have evolved in Siberia around 800,000 years ago from the Steppe mammoth, with the first European evidence dating to around 200,000 years ago.
Throughout the entire Pleistocene Epoch (2.6 million years ago until around 10,000 years ago), the climate changed dramatically; extremely cold dry periods gave way to warmer luscious periods in rhythmic cycles. This ever changing climate obviously had an effect on the animals living at this time. When winter came, it hit hard. Luckily for the woolly mammoth, this was a good thing. They were at home on the aptly called Mammoth Steppe, which was a very cold dry environment with little trees, but lots of low shrub vegetation and grasses. The steppes sustained many herds of different animals including horses, reindeer, bison and giant deer (and of course the predators).
Warmer climates would force the mammoths to follow the retreating steppe, heading north in the warmer months, and migrating south as the steppe expanded during the colder months. During some years the winters lasted much longer and the habitat of the steppe environment expanded. Herds of mammoths and other beasts moved across the expanding landscapes, and with more water trapped in the enormous glaciers, there was more land. This allowed the woolly mammoth to travel all across Siberia, Europe, and even to North America across the land bridge of the Bering Straits. (An interesting aside several species did move to North America this way, including lions and humans. The fantastic woolly rhinoceros, which enjoyed the same environment as woolly mammoths, didn’t make it across. Neither did hyenas.)
With woolly mammoths literally defrosting in Siberia, we know more about this Twilight Beast than any other. Its familiar shaggy hair varied from light to dark colour, and could grow up to 40 cm long! It was light to dark brown coloured. This big beast was adapted for braving the cold temperatures. Glands in the skin would secrete oils into this thick matt of hair which would have given the hair better insulation. Below these oily glands was a thick layer of fat, covering the body. Short ears and a short tail minimised any heat loss from the body. There was also a large flap of skin covering the anus to keep it warm.
With two enormous curved tusks, the mouth only had four molars; two at the top and two at the bottom. These molars were impressive. Apart from being pretty big (about the length of my arm), they were made from pates of enamel with dentine holding them together. What was really unique was that new plates grew from the back, pushing out the ‘older’ more worn plates out at teh front of the tooth. Such big beasts needed a lot of food, so replacing the plates of the molar was one adaptation; the other was replacing the entire tooth; woolly mammoths had six sets of molars during their 60 or so year life. Their flat ridged teeth give clues to what they ate; but the frozen remains gives us much more detail! Plant remains in the teeth and intestines of frozen carcasses show they were mainly feeding from grasses and sedges. They were not too much of a fussy eater, because remains of flowers, herbaceous plants, mosses, shrubs and trees have also been found.
Both Neanderthals and humans encountered woolly mammoths, and both would have hunted the mammoth, and scavenged carcasses. Cut marks on bones show they were butchered for their meat and it is likely their skin was used for clothing and shelter. Incredible finds in the Ukraine and over 70 sites in Russia, have shown that the bones of these giants have been used to make huts. The bones have also been used as fuel on fires, which was vital on the cold tundra where there was little firewood. These giants were essential to the survival of early humans in these extremely harsh environments.
Early humans had an intimate relationship with these hairy giants. As well as an essential food resource, the magnificent woolly mammoth has been depicted on many cave walls in France, including Grotte de Cussac, Chauvet Caves and Font-de-Gaume. Their ivory has been used to carve some incredible beautiful intricate figure sculptures. We can never know how humans viewed the giants when they saw them, but I like to imagine it was with awe and respect.
There are views that the extinction of the woolly mammoth was caused by ‘overkill’, where humans killed them all. Recent radiocarbon date studies have shown that as the climate changed so did the distribution of this beast. Towards the end of the Pleistocene, the warmer temperatures reduced the amount of steppe environment the woolly mammoths enjoyed. The small herds followed the food northwards, until they could follow no more. Human hunting may have been the final blow for this species under pressure. Currently the latest woolly mammoths in Europe were as young as 9,760 years ago. In Siberia, however, something survived.
To the north east of Russia in the East Siberian Sea, a population of mammoths became isolated on a small island; Wrangel Island was the home to the last woolly mammoths. They became isolated and survived for almost 6000 years, until a changing climate and the new threat of humans finally saw the end to an amazing species. The youngest specimens date to around 4000 years ago. It is ncredible to think that while the pyramids were being built, the woolly mammoth made thier last stand on a small isolated island.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
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