10 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Mammoths

Mammoths are amongst the most iconic of beasts. The huge mammals roamed the Earth for millions of years, before finally slipping into the oblivion of extinction just a few thousand years ago.

Now, however, scientists believe we may have the tools to bring them back from the dead. Almost perfectly preserved specimens retrieved from the icy Siberian tundra have revealed their secrets. Their entire genetic code has been cracked. It might just possible for a mammoth embryo to be brought to term in an Asian elephant surrogate mother, or perhaps even in an artificial womb.

With mammoths perhaps on the brink of an unprecedented comeback, here are 10 things you probably don’t know about the prehistoric animals.

10. Mammoth Remains led to an Important Scientific Breakthrough

The first mammoth remains were dug up in 1728, more than a hundred years before the discovery of dinosaurs. Charles Darwin’s Theory of Evolution didn’t yet exist, and people’s understanding of the world still tended to be based largely on religious texts. As such, it was widely believed that all animals had existed in their current form unchanged since the time of the Garden of Eden. God didn’t make mistakes, so it seemed implausible that he’d allow one of his creations to disappear from the face of the Earth.

Increasingly frequent finds of mammoth remains challenged this belief.

Some scientists suggested the giant bones being unearthed must belong to African elephants. Remains that were discovered in Italy were explained away as belonging to one of the war elephants that Hannibal Barca took across the Alps in his war with ancient Rome. It was more problematic to explain just what African elephants would have been doing wandering around Northern Europe and Siberia, where many of the bones were being discovered.

The question was eventually settled by a French scientist named Georges Cuvier. In 1796 he published a paper in which he demonstrated that mammoth teeth and bones were distinct from those of existing elephants. By 1812 Cuvier had identified 49 different species of extinct animals. However, it was the giant mammoths that captured the public’s imagination and helped prove extinction to be a scientific fact.

9. Early Humans Killed off the Mammoths

Mammoths were one of evolutions success stories. Their remains have been found in every continent except South America and Australia. They walked the Earth for six-million years, before finally going the same way as 99.9 percent of all the species that have ever existed and succumbing to extinction.

Scientific analysis has revealed that mammoth populations began to decline sharply around 12,000 years ago. This ties in neatly with the end of the last ice age and supports the idea that climate change drove the mammoths to extinction. As their habitat warmed, they were simply unable to adapt to the changes.

One problem with this theory is that mammoths had survived several warm periods before. This suggests that they might have been expected to make it through again. The difference was that they were being hunted by humans for meat and ivory.

A study conducted by the University of Exeter in England found a close relationship between the extinction of large animals such as mammoths and the known patterns of human migration. This suggests that humans rather than climate may well have been the decisive factor in bringing about the end of the age of the mammoths.

8. The Last Woolly Mammoths Didn’t Look Like You’d Think

Frozen throughout much of the year and located in the Arctic Ocean around 100 miles north of the Siberian mainland, the harsh environment of Wrangel Island is home to polar bears, walruses, and arctic fox. It was also the site of the woolly mammoths’ last stand.

It had been believed that mammoths went extinct around 10,000 years ago. We now know that a small, isolated population of the animals survived on Wrangel Island for hundreds of generations. As late as 2000 BC, at a time when humans were advanced enough to be building giant pyramids and stone palaces, the last of the mammoths still walked the earth.

By comparing the genetic sequence of a mammoth that lived 45,000 years ago with that of a far more modern Wrangel Island mammoth, scientists discovered that the last of the mammoths were not a picture of health.

Thousands of years of interbreeding had left the animals struggling with a host of genetic problems. By far the most striking of these would have been a defect that caused their coats to turn a translucent white color and lose their insulating properties. The last of the mammoths would have looked very different to how we had always pictured them.  

7. The Saint Paul Island Mammoths Died a Horrible Death

The Woolly mammoths of Wrangel Island weren’t the only ones of their kind to temporarily escape the extinction of their species. Another lonely group of a few hundred animals survived, cut off from the mainland on Saint Paul Island off the coast of Alaska.

No human set foot on Saint Paul Island until as late as 1787, so these Woolly mammoths were safe from hunters. However, while their isolation saved them for thousands of years, eventually it brought about their downfall.

When the lakes on which the mammoths relied for fresh water began to dry up, there was nothing left to drink and nowhere left to go. It’s likely that the unfortunate animals suffered a long, lingering death.

By analyzing lake sediment for mammoth DNA, scientists have been able to pinpoint the date of this catastrophe with remarkable accuracy. Some 5,650 years ago, with a margin for error of just one-hundred years either way, the Saint Paul Island mammoths were lost to the world forever.

6. Some Mammoths Weren’t Very Mammoth at All

The name mammoth has come to be synonymous with immense size. However, there were a few species of mammoth that didn’t at all live up to this stereotype. Most species of mammoths weren’t a great deal bigger than an African elephant, and a few were considerably smaller. The most diminutive of them all once lived on the Greek island of Crete, and at just one-meter tall a fully-grown adult was no bigger than a baby elephant. Even a human of average height would have towered over these tiny mammoths.

Crete’s extinct mammoths represent the most extreme known example of Foster’s rule, also sometimes referred to as the island effect. Where large mammals are trapped on a small island, they adapt to the restrictions on habitat and food by evolving to become progressively smaller. Curiously enough the exact opposite applies to smaller mammals such as rats and rabbits, which tend to adapt to island life by evolving to become considerably larger than their mainland relatives.

5. Woolly Mammoth Tusks are Like Tree Trunks (sort of)

Woolly mammoths are perhaps the most visually striking and iconic of all mammoths. They stood more than three-meters tall at the shoulder, weighed in at a hefty 6 tons, and were covered in a thick coat of brown hair that covered their entire body.

Their tusks, which were used for foraging through snow in search of food, could grow as large as three-meters long and weigh 91 kilograms. The tusk of an average male African elephant, by way of comparison, is a much more modest two-meters in length.

It isn’t just their size that marks woolly mammoth tusks out as remarkable. A mammoth’s tusks continued to grow throughout the animal’s life. As they did so they left daily growth rings. In much the same way as it’s possible to determine the age of a tree by counting the rings in its trunk, scientists can slice through woolly mammoth tusks and count the rings to determine precisely how old the creature was when it died. As the female animals’ tusks grew more slowly when they were pregnant, it’s even possible for researchers to determine how many offspring an individual mammoth gave birth to.

4. The Great American Incognitum

In the late 18th century a Frenchman named George de Buffon was one of the most famous and influential scientists in the world. He had never set foot on American soil, but that didn’t prevent him publishing his Theory of American Degeneracy.

Buffon insisted that American soil was less fertile, its people inferior, and its animals smaller, weaker, and less impressive than those found in the old world.

The Americans were outraged. Thomas Jefferson, the third President of the United States, so much so that he had a huge bull moose shot, shipped to Europe, and its by now somewhat decomposed carcass delivered to Buffon’s doorstep.

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia naturalists were piecing together the bones of a huge mammothlike creature, then known as the great American incognitum but now renamed the mastodon.

The recreation of the beast wasn’t perfect. For a time it was given claws that actually belonged to a giant sloth that had been unearthed nearby. A curious misconception that the beast would have been an agile predator led its tusks to be attached backwards. The theory was that it would have used them to skewer its prey to the ground.

Despite these mistakes, the completed reconstruction of the mastodon was an imposing sight. Thomas Jefferson became entranced with the animal, even funding an expedition that he hoped would locate live specimens in remote regions of America. As he helpfully pointed out to Buffon, the giant bones of the great American incognitum made a mockery of the idea that American animals were small, weak, and inferior.

3. Mammoth Hunting is Becoming Big Business

As the effects of climate change are felt and the Arctic permafrost begins to melt, huge numbers of woolly mammoths are being released from their icy tombs after thousands of years.

The abundance of new specimens to study mean that scientists now know more about the mammoths than almost any other extinct animal, but they’ve also attracted a new breed of mammoth hunters.

It’s estimated that there may be as many as 10 million mammoth carcasses waiting to be discovered in the Arctic. With just a single large tusk being worth around $35,000, there’s a huge amount of money to be made.

Many mammoth hunters operate illegally without a permit. However, mammoth tusks aren’t covered by the 1989 ban on ivory trade, so they can be sold legally on the open market.

Some of the more optimistic conservationists have suggested the increasing availability of mammoth ivory might lead to a reduction in poaching of elephants. So far this hasn’t happened, and the trade of mammoth tusks is often used as a front for trafficking illegal elephant ivory.

2. Mammoths Could Combat Climate Change

The melting permafrost isn’t just revealing mammoths; it’s also allowing huge amounts of carbon to be released from the ground into the atmosphere. This is potentially very bad news indeed. As carbon is released, the rate at which the permafrost melts will increase, which will in turn release even more carbon.

This feedback loop is potentially catastrophic for the future of humanity. One of the more outlandish suggestions is that the reintroduction of woolly mammoths to Siberia could mitigate the damage and help combat climate change.

The blanket of snow that lies over Siberia for much of the year actually serves to trap in warmth. With mammoths trampling around and digging through the snow in search of food, the suggestion is that they would expose the permafrost to the much colder air, and hopefully slow down the rate at which it is melting.

For this plan to work there would need to be hundreds, or perhaps even thousands of mammoths. This represents a major stumbling block since we don’t currently have any. However, a team of Harvard University scientists headed by George Church believe they are on the brink of reviving the woolly mammoth.

1. Rise of the Mammophants

Even if Dr. George Church and his team are successful, the animals they create wouldn’t strictly speaking be pure mammoth. It would be more accurate to describe them as mammoth/elephant hybrids, or mammophants.

The woolly mammoths’ closest living relative is the Asian rather than the African elephant. They set off on different branches of their family tree as much as 6 million years ago, but it’s recently been discovered that their genomes are far more similar than anybody had expected. On a genetic level the Asian elephant is 99.6% identical to a woolly mammoth. This makes them far more alike than humans are to chimpanzees, which are believed to share 96% of their DNA.

This similarity has allowed Church’s team to use the Asian elephant as a genetic template. Sophisticated DNA editing software allows them to copy and paste mammoth DNA in. If Church is right, then he will be able to create an animal that would be almost identical to a woolly mammoth, both in appearance and genetics, and equipped to survive freezing Siberian winters.

Church argues that his project could help combat climate change, learn more about genetic diseases, and preserve endangered Asian elephants – albeit in an unfamiliar genetically altered state. This has failed to dispel the unease many have expressed over the ethics of the project.

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