10 Facts About the Wild Woolly Mammoth

The Woolly Mammoth Was Only One of Many Similar Species

Woolly Mammoths were ancestors of the modern elephant. They evolved from the genus Mammuthus which first evolved about 5.1 million years ago in Africa. These huge, shaggy beasts went extinct more than 10,000 years ago, along with their distant cousins the mastodons. The image of the woolly mammoth was painted on the walls of prehistoric people, and have become part of our popular culture. There's even a significant movement to try to bring the species back through cloning. How much do you actually know about these fascinating creatures?

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The Tusks of the Woolly Mammoth Were Up to 15 Feet Long

Ryan Somma/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

Besides 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 pair up with more females during mating season. (And yes, the tusks may secondarily have been used to ward off hungry ​saber-tooth tigers, though we have no direct fossil evidence supporting this theory.)

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Woolly Mammoths Were Hunted by Early Humans

An ancient hut built out of Woolly Mammoth bones
Nandaro/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

As massive as they were (about 13 feet long and five to seven tons), Woolly Mammoths figured on the lunch menu of early Homo sapiens, who coveted these beasts for their warm pelts (which could presumably keep an entire family comfy on bitterly cold nights) as well as their tasty, fatty meat. In fact, there's an argument to be made that the patience, planning, and cooperation required to bring down a single Woolly Mammoth was a key factor in the development of human civilization.

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The Woolly Mammoth Has Been Memorialized in Cave Paintings

Early humans painting Woolly Mammoths
Charles R. Knight/American Museum of Natural History

From about 30,000 to 12,000 years ago, the Woolly Mammoth was one of the most popular subjects of neolithic artists, who daubed images of this shaggy beast on the walls of numerous western European caves. These primitive paintings may have been intended as totems (that is, early humans may have believed that capturing Woolly Mammoths in ink facilitated capturing them in real life) or as objects of worship; or perhaps a particularly talented caveman was just bored on a cold, rainy day!

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The Woolly Mammoth Wasn't the Only "Woolly" Prehistoric Mammal

Coelodonta, aka the Woolly Rhino
Daniel Eskridge/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

Plunk any large, warm-blooded mammal down in an arctic habitat, and you can bet that it will evolve shaggy fur millions of years down the road. 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 for its food and pelt by early humans (who presumably found this one-ton beast a bit easier to handle). This single-horned beast may even have helped inspire the unicorn legend! The North American Mastodon, with which the Woolly Mammoth shared some of its territory, had a much shorter fur pelt.

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The Woolly Mammoth Wasn't the Only Mammoth Species

The Columbian Mammoth
WolfmanSF/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

What we call the Woolly Mammoth was actually a particular species of genus Mammuthus, Mammuthus primigenius. A dozen other Mammoth species were extant in North America and Eurasia during the Pleistocene epoch, including Mammuthus trogontherii (the Steppe Mammoth), Mammuthus imperator (the Imperial Mammoth) and Mammuthus columbi (the Columbian Mammoth). However, none of these Mammoths attained as wide a distribution as their woolly relative.

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The Woolly Mammoth Wasn't the Biggest Mammoth Species, Either

Imperial Mammoth
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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

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Woolly Mammoths Were Covered with Fat as Well as Fur

Woolly Mammoth
Science Picture Co/Getty Images

Even the thickest, shaggiest 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 climatic conditions. Based on what we can learn from well-preserved individuals, Woolly Mammoth fur ranged in color from blonde to dark brown, much like human hair.

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The Last Woolly Mammoths Went Extinct 4,000 Years Ago

A herd of Woolly Mammoths

By the end of the last Ice Age, about 10,000 years ago, pretty much all the world's Mammoths had succumbed to climate change and predation by humans. 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 extremely limited resources, Wrangel Island Mammoths grew to much smaller sizes than their Woolly Mammoth relatives, and are often referred to as dwarf elephants.

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Many Woolly Mammoths Have Been Preserved in Permafrost

A frozen Woolly Mammoth juvenile
Andrew Butko/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Even today, 10,000 years after the last Ice Age, the northern reaches of Canada, Alaska, and Siberia are very, very cold—which helps to explain the amazing number of Woolly Mammoth individuals that have been discovered mummified, near-intact, in solid blocks of ice. Identifying, isolating and hacking out these giant corpses is the easy part; what's much harder is keeping the remains from disintegrating once they reach room temperature!

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It May Be Possible to Clone a Woolly Mammoth

Andrew Butko/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 3.0

Because Woolly Mammoths went extinct relatively recently and were closely related to modern elephants, scientists may be able to harvest the DNA of Mammuthus primigenius and incubate a fetus in a living pachyderm (a process known as "de-extinction"). In fact, a team of researchers recently announced that they have decoded the near-complete genomes of two 40,000-year-old Woolly Mammoth specimens. Unfortunately, this same trick is unlikely to work for dinosaurs, since DNA doesn't preserve well over tens of millions of years.