Four men stood beneath the wooden frame of this enormous proboscidean. On the front left leg, the man slowly raises his own left leg, bringing up with it the leg of the beast. Slowly, the skeletal leg lifted from the ground, moved forward a few feet, then rested on the soft sand. Suddenly, the other three men began lifting their appropriate legs in a well organised dance, making this gigantic structure start ‘walking’. Audible gasps from the crowd of over 700 people could be heard along this normally desolate Norfolk beach.
This is not the scene from some weird 21st century Wickerman-style cult, with the hope of a good harvest. The wonderful wooden creature is based on an extraordinary beast that walked on real, fleshy padded feed around 600,000 years ago: the Steppe Mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii).
A huge creature, the Steppe Mammoth may have been the largest species of elephant to have existed, rivalling the giant African Deinotherium. Calculations based on fossils place this standing much taller than a double decker bus. Fossil teeth reveal a lot about its diet. It had between 18-20 ridges on tough flat molars (its descendent, the Woolly Mammoth Mammuthus primigenius, had around 26 ridges). These plates added strength to the teeth, allowing them to eat a range of tough vegetation. An increase in plates from its ancestor, the Southern Mammoth(Mammuthus meridionalis), allowed it to adapt to the drying Siberian environment. Rare finds of almost complete specimens even reveal clues to their lifestyle. Tusks in the males were thicker and larger than those in females, suggesting the bulls fought for dominance, like elephants do today.
This was quite the beast. Thick molars allowed it to take advantage of a new environment which was spreading. With the climatic shifts, and more ice in the ice caps, there was a newer, drier environment in northern Europe; the Steppe. Diverging from its smaller ancestor, the Southern Mammoth, somewhere around 700,000 years ago in Siberia, the Steppe Mammoth lolloped far and wide. Fossils have been found across Europe and Asia, and as far East as Japan.
Since its original discovery in 1857, the taxonomy of this beast has been very taxing. Fossils found in Europe were named Mammuthus trogontherii, while those found in Asia were named M. ameniacus. Another species was added to the mix in 1959, M. sungari, which ended up being a mixture of Steppe Mammoth and Woolly Mammoth bones. The reason for this species confusion? The simple answer is variation. Variation within a species is what makes each individual unique, and a key part of the evolution of species. Look around the next time you are on a train or a bus, everyone (barring your identical twins) is strikingly different: different eye colour, hair colour, skin colour, nose shape, face shape, height, and so on. Most, but obviously not all, of these differences are recorded in an individual’s skeleton. Compare my skeleton to yours and there will be clear differences. But there are more similarities which show you and I belong to the same species. We know we are all one species. But when we get to the bare bones it becomes a little more tricky. Our species sits within ranges of variation so everything inbetween is Homo sapiens. However, nature is never simple. Sometimes the variation within a species can blur into another.
This is what makes a palaeontologist’s job very difficult. With one or a small number of specimens, is the creature they are looking at a new species, or an individual that is just a variation within an already known species? Even after a very detailed look at those fossils named Mammuthus trogontherii and M. ameniacus we still don’t actually know if they are the same species. With variation distinct enough to cause confusion, there may have been various Steppe Mammoth sub-species living at the same time. (This isn’t as odd as it sounds. There are many sub-species we know of today. There are ten subspecies of leopards: still closely related enough to produce fertile offspring but distinct enough to warrant separation. A subspecies is witnessing a species changing. Whether or not that subspecies evolves into anything else or just vanishes is down to luck and natural selection.)
There is a reason for that odd wooden elephant frame walking across the beach in Norfolk. Over a couple of years in the early 1990s, some very large bones were found exposed along the cliff on West Runton beach. Following the finds, the site was carefully excavated in 1995, resulting in the discovery of an almost complete skeleton of a Steppe Mammoth (subsequently called, the West Runton Elephant, but more accurately called the West Runton Mammoth). (A small display about the West Runton Mammoth is on display at Cromer Museum, and the Norfolk Museums Service have plans to create a 3D scan of the fossil bones. When this project is complete, they hope to mount the entire skeleton for public display!)
And because the excavation was fairly recent, and used modern excavation techniques, an amazing amount of information has been recorded about the time when this creature was alive. Around 85% of a male skeleton was found, only missing a few feet bones, ribs and the top of the skull. He was about 40 years old, and judging from a deformed right knee, probably walked with a limp. The West Runton Mammoth fell into a river bed, around 600,000 years ago, never to walk again.Fossils found in this river bed, called the West Runton Freshwater Bed, include snails, shrews, voles, deer, horse, rhinoceros, as well as the sabre tooth cat Homotherium latidens and the extinct rhinoceros Stephanorhinus hundsheimensis. Norfolk was very different 600,000 years ago than it is today. As well as the animals, the landscape was very different. With so much ice trapped in glaciers to the north, the English Channel was not around, providing a dry land connection to Europe. Species came and went with the seasons. Pollen indicates that the temperature when the West Runton Mammoth lived was very similar to ours today.
We don’t know exactly when the Steppe Mammoth became extinct. It is thought to have vanished in Europe somewhere between 300,000 and 120,000 years ago towards the end of the Middle Pleistocene. From the specimens found so far, none show signs of cut marks by hominins. Increasingly drier temperatures put on more pressure and the Steppe Mammoth’s days were numbered. The smaller but hairier and fatter Woolly Mammoth was better adapted to life on the Mammoth Steppe, and this new age of the Late Pleistocene. However, it wasn’t pushed to extinction by the Woolly Mammoth. Although this incredible beast was outcompeted on the frozen steppe, the giant Mammuthus trogontherii lived on in China until at least 24,000 years ago. It may have vanished from the steppes forever, but this was a survivor of incredible times.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
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