Mammoths have a wonderful display of mammoth teeth, the diagnostic flat enamel plates and the equally distinct pointy cusped molars of the mastodons. He was a true elephant, unlike his less robust cousins, the mastodons. Mammoths were bigger — both in girth and height — weighing in at a max of 13 tonnes.
They are closely related to Asian elephants and were about the size of the African elephants you see roaming the grasslands of Africa today.
If you stood beside him and reached way up, you might be able to touch his tusks but likely not reach up to his mouth or even his eyes. He would have had a shaggy coat of light or dark coloured hair with long outer hair strands covering a dense thick undercoat. His oil glands would have worked overtime to secrete oils, giving him natural waterproofing.
Some of the hair strands we have recovered are more than a meter in length. These behemoth proboscideans boasted long, curved tusks, little ears, short tails and grazed on leaves, shrubs and grasses that would have been work to get at as much of the northern hemisphere was covered in ice and snow during his reign. It is often the teeth of mammoths like those you see in the photo here that we see displayed.
Their molar teeth were large and have always struck me as looking like ink plates from a printing press. If they are allowed to dry out in collection, they fall apart into discreet plates that can be mistaken for mineralized or calcified rock and not the bits and pieces of mammoth molars that they indeed are. Their large surface area was perfect for grinding down the low nutrient, but for the most part, plentiful grasses that sustained them.
|Mammoth Tusk, Wrangel Island, Chukotka Okrug, Russia|
It's a genius design, really. A bit like having a plough on the front of your skull. In the photo here you can see a tusk washed clean in a creek bed on Wrangel Island.
Their size offered protection against other predators once the mammoth was full grown. Sadly for the juveniles, they offered tasty prey to big cats like Homotherium who roamed those ancient grasslands alongside them.
They roamed widely in the Pliocene to Holocene, roaming much of Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. We see them first some 150,000 years ago from remains in Russia then expanding out from Spain to Alaska. They enjoyed a very long lifespan of 60-80 — up to 20 years longer than a mastodon and longer than modern elephants.
They enjoyed the prime position as the Apex predator of the megafauna, then declined — partially because of the environment and food resources and partially because of their co-existence with humans. In places where the fossil record shows a preference for hunting smaller prey, humans and megafauna do better together. We see this in places like the Indian Subcontinent where primates and rodents made the menu more often than the large megafauna who roamed there. We also see this in present-day Africa, where the last of the large and lovely megafauna show remarkable resilience in the face of human co-existence.
The woolly mammoths from the Ukrainian-Russian plains died out 15,000 years ago. This population was followed by woolly mammoths from St. Paul Island in Alaska who died out 5,600 years ago — and quite surprisingly, at least to me, the last mammoth died just 4,000 years ago in the frosty ice on the small island of Wrangel in the Arctic Ocean — their final days spent scratching out a dwindling existence of genetic mutations, howling winds, rain-darkened hills and subsistence on tough grasses grown in thin soil.
Further reading: Laura Arppe, Juha A. Karhu, Sergey Vartanyan, Dorothée G. Drucker, Heli Etu-Sihvola, Hervé Bocherens. Thriving or surviving? The isotopic record of the Wrangel Island woolly mammoth population. Quaternary Science Reviews, 2019; 222: 105884 DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2019.105884