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10 Facts About the Woolly Mammoth

Everything You Need Know About the Famous Pleistocene Pachyderm


Woolly mammoths, artwork
Science Photo Library - LEONELLO CALVETTI/ Brand X Pictures/ Getty Images
woolly mammoth

The large, curved tusks of the Woolly Mammoth were most likely a sexually selected characteristic (Wikimedia Commons)

woolly mammoth

Many Woolly Mammoths have been retrieved from permafrost, allowing scientists to harvest soft tissue samples (Wikimedia Commons)

No recreation of the Ice Age would be complete without a large, shaggy Woolly Mammoth stomping across the frozen tundra. Here are 10 facts you may or may not have known about this hairy, lumbering, big-tusked beast.

1. The Woolly Mammoth wasn't the only species of Mammoth...

What we call the Woolly Mammoth was actually a particular species of genus Mammuthus, Mammuthus primigenius. A dozen other Mammoth species were extant during the Pleistocene epoch, including Mammuthus trogontherii (the Steppe Mammoth), Mammuthus imperator (the Imperial Mammoth) and Mammuthus columbi (the Columbian Mammoth).

2. ...and it wasn't the biggest, either.

Despite its reputation, the Woolly Mammoth was actually outclassed by a few other Mammuthus species. Imperial Mammoth males weighed over 10 tons, and some individuals of the Songhua River Mammoth of northern China (Mammuthus sungari) tipped the scales at 15 tons. Compared to these behemoths, the five- to seven-ton Woolly Mammoth was a relative runt!

3. Some Woolly Mammoths had 15-foot-long tusks...

Beside their long, shaggy coats, Woolly Mammoths are famous for their extra-long tusks, which measured up to 15 feet on the biggest males. These huge appendages were most likely a sexually selected characteristic: males with longer, curvier, more impressive tusks had the opportunity to mate with more females. (And yes, the tusks may secondarily have been used to ward off hungry Saber-Tooth Tigers.)

4. ...but their ears were relatively small.

The big, floppy ears of modern African Elephants are ideal for dissipating excess heat. Unlike their tropical descendants, though, Woolly Mammoths lived in frigid climates, which would have made plus-sized, heat-leaking ears a distinct liability. Hence the relatively small ears of Mammuthus primigenius, which minimized the surface area of skin exposed to the elements.

5. Woolly Mammoths were hunted by Homo sapiens.

As massive as they were, Woolly Mammoths figured on the lunch menu of early humans, who coveted these beasts for their warm pelts as well as their tasty meat. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the patience, planning and cooperation required to bring down a single Woolly Mammoth went a long way toward advancing human civilization!

6. The Woolly Mammoth wasn't the only "woolly" mammal.

Plunk any large, warm-blooded mammal down in an arctic habitat, and you can bet that it'll evolve shaggy fur millions of years down the line. It's not as well-known as the Woolly Mammoth, but the Woolly Rhino, aka Coelodonta, also roamed the plains of Pleistocene Eurasia, and it was also hunted by early humans (who probably found this one-ton beast a bit easier to handle).

7. The last Woolly Mammoths went extinct about 4,000 years ago.

By the end of the last Ice Age, pretty much all the world's Mammoths had succumbed to climate change and human predation. The exception was a small population of Woolly Mammoths that lived on Wrangel Island, off the coast of Siberia, until 1700 B.C. Since they subsisted on limited resources, Wrangel Island Mammoths were much smaller than their Woolly relatives.

8. Woolly Mammoths were covered with fat as well as fur.

Even a thick coat of fur won't provide sufficient protection during a full-on Arctic gale. That's why Woolly Mammoths also had four inches of solid fat underneath their skin, an added layer of insulation that helped to keep them warm and toasty in the most severe conditions. (By the way, Woolly Mammoth fur ranged in color from blonde to dark brown, much like human hair.)

9. Many Woolly Mammoths have been discovered intact in permafrost.

The northern reaches of Siberia are very, very cold--which helps to explain the amazing number of Woolly Mammoths that have been found mummified, near-intact, in solid blocks of ice. Discovering, isolating and hacking out these giant corpses is the easy part; what's much harder is to keep the remains from disintegrating once they reach room temperature!

10. It may be possible to clone a Woolly Mammoth.

Because Woolly Mammoths went extinct relatively recently, and were closely related to modern elephants, scientists may one day be able to harvest the DNA of Mammuthus primigenius and incubate a fetus in a living pachyderm (a process known as "de-extinction"). Unfortunately, this same trick wouldn't work for dinosaurs, since DNA doesn't preserve well over tens of millions of years.

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