The prehistoric mammoth

The prehistoric mammoth is one of the most amazing extinct animals in existence. This prehistoric animal inhabited our planet not long ago, during the Cenozoic. Within the Cenozoic Era it would have inhabited the temporal subdivision known as the Quaternary Period.

One of the points that makes it so special is its size, and that is that we are talking about a whole giant. One of the largest specimens reached 9 meters in length and 6 meters in height.

But its attraction goes much further and borders on the myth.

To this day, science is still divided over the causes of its extinction 4,000 years ago. Although there are also few testimonies that claim that it still lives in the inhospitable and extreme Siberia.

In addition, there is speculation that with the genome that scientists have extracted, a mammoth could be cloned. Who knows if in a few years Jurassic Park will abandon the fiction and become a reality full of mammoths.

There are several theories about this but we are not going to go into them, we are just going to give you the most extensive, complete and precise information about the “mammoth” that you will find on the Internet.

Shall we go with it?

Get ready to enter the legend of the snow giant.


The mammoth family

When investigating the background of the prehistoric mammoth (Mammuthus) we see that there is some confusion with what we could call “a distant cousin”, the Mammoth.

What has happened?

Since both species have such similar names, they have become confused.

When you read the title and see “prehistoric mammoth”, surely the image of a huge, very woolly animal with two large tusks has come to mind. That animal is the one we should call Mammuthus, specifically, the primeval Mammuthus. The one we all call the woolly mammoth.

So, who is the Mammuth?

As I was saying, he could be considered a distant relative of the Mammuthus, since both are of the order of the Proboscidae (mammals with horns).

However, it is at this point that they take different paths. The Mammuthus evolves into the Elephantidae family. The Mammuthus, on the other hand, grows into the family of the Mammutidae (the mastodons).

Differences between Mammuthus and Mammuth

The reality is that not only are they similar in name, their physical appearance is also very similar: the Mammuthus had shorter legs and were more robust. Also, their body was more elongated.

The timing of their appearance is also different. The Mammuthus, besides being a “distant cousin”, were also older, these Proboscis appearing at the time of the Miocene (about 11 billion years ago). On the other hand, the Mammuthus appeared in the Pliocene, which is the stage after the Miocene, there is only a ridiculous difference of 5,000 million years.

The mammoths were not only robust, but also highly adaptable to the environment. This argument is one of the reasons why fossils have been found in so many different places.

In fact, the different species that you have seen of the Mammunthus come from the place of origin of the animal.

Characteristics of the prehistoric mammoth

As we saw at the beginning, the Mamummthus are a type of proboscis, or what is the same, a mammal with a trunk (like an elephant).

In terms of size there are two types of mammoths: large and small.

The largest specimens reached almost 6 meters in height at the withers (the highest point between the shoulder blades) and 9 meters in length (almost the length of a non-articulated bus). The largest species were M. trogontherii and M. columbi.

The difference in size with the smaller genera is remarkable. They were usually between 1.5 and 2 metres in height. Hence they were called pygmies or dwarfs.

The woolly mammoth would stay in the middle since its height was between 3 and 4 meters.

The average weight of a mammoth varied between 6 and 8 tons, although the largest specimens reached 12 tons.

Their hind legs were shorter than their front ones, so it always seems that their back is sloping.

Its two huge, curved tusks are one of its most characteristic features. The largest tusk ever found was 5 meters long, although normally they did not exceed 3 meters. At birth they have no fangs, it is around 6 months when they grow their first ones. However, they were made of milk and were only 5 centimeters long. It is at the age of one and a half when the final fangs appear. A very curious thing is that its fangs never stopped growing until the animal died.

In Siberia, near the coast, there are people who are looking for lost mammoth tusks. So they can sell the highly valued ivory.

The characteristic coat of the mammoths (eye, only in the species that lived further north) protected them from the extreme climatic situations where they lived. Their coat was composed of two layers.

The outer one was stronger, harder and longer and its mission was to protect the inner hair layer. The hair of this inner layer was much thinner, but very abundant, and it was a very dense mantle and the one that was in charge of providing heat.

Another very characteristic feature of the Mammuthus was their head. Instead of being flat, it was curved.

And they had the back, too, which was curved. Although this was not discovered from fossils, but from cave paintings. Their back was arched because it had a hump. Whether it was fat, muscle or just hair is not known for sure.

Adapted genetics: Antifreeze blood

According to a paper presented in the magazine “Nature Genetics”, the blood of prehistoric mammoths was antifreeze. After several years of studying the blood of these giants, a group of paleontologists discovered that their blood possessed a special genetic adaptation to withstand the cold. In extremely cold conditions, hemoglobin is not able to carry oxygen through the body, while the blood of the Mammunthus was.

It should not be forgotten that all these discoveries can be made thanks to finding frozen mammoths in their entirety. This is why the blood of these animals has been analysed.

Mammoth vs. Elephant

As we have seen before, the Mammunthus would be an ancestor of the current elephant, although this does not mean that they are entirely the same. One of the most obvious differences is its ears, while the mammoth had very small ears, the elephant has huge ears.

Why is that?

The answer lies in how the species adapts to the habitat they live in. Elephants use their ears to dissipate the high temperatures they have to endure in hot climates, while the ears of mammoths were small because they withstood the cold better.

We go from a difference to a similarity. Like the elephants, the mammoth could move its trunk and pick up things with it (it was prehensile). So it could pull grass or leaves from the ground and bring them close to its mouth. Its trunk was also used to pour water over its body to clean itself.

Mammoths would pour mud over their bodies to avoid mosquitoes. A great trick, isn’t it?

Who first discovered this huge prehistoric animal?

At first, the mammoth was confused with the elephants, as if they were the same species.

The first person to point out that they were different was George Cuvier in 1796. To do this, Cuvier relied on the drawings that Messerschmidt made on his expedition to Siberia. Tsar Peter the Great had sent this naturalist to discover the “curiosities” of these distant lands.

A further step was taken in 1799, when Johann Friedrich Blumenbach named the mammoth “Elephas Primigenius”.

Although it would take a long time for science to see that the mammoth was a completely different species.

There is a club for adventurers and explorers, The Explorers Club, which meets for dinner every year in New York. Up to that point, everything might seem normal.

What’s peculiar about this meeting is the menu. At one of these dinners, you can enjoy, among other equally diverse dishes, olive, spring onion and pickled cow’s eye skewers. Or the always delicious Madagascar cockroaches infused with Tasmanian Leatherwood honey and citrus fruits.

At one of these dinners, it was claimed that mammoth meat was served that an explorer had found in Siberia.

Very recently, Yale University itself has dismantled the story. A team of researchers got a sample of that dish and analyzed it.

Do you know what it turned out to be?

Megatherium. A type of sloth that’s also extinct.

Feeding mammoths

Although it was strange to think so, this giant animal was herbivorous. In fact, its favourite plant was grass. Although he used to like leaves and plants, too.

Do you want to know how much he had to eat a day?

180 kilograms a day. It would be the ruin of any home economy.

A very curious thing about mammoths is their teeth. As this species evolved, it modified its teeth. At first, mammoths only had premolar teeth. However, in order to be able to chew grass better, these teeth developed into molars (larger and more prepared for grinding).

Although the most peculiar of all is the following.

Such was the volume of grass that they had to eat (remember that we are talking about 180 kilos a day) that their teeth were wearing out. As this happened, they were growing others back.

They grew up to a set of 6 molars. When the last molars were worn out, the animal could no longer eat, and therefore died. It is estimated that this happened when it was between 60 and 70 years old.

A tooth could weigh up to 2 kilos!

What was the lifestyle of this mammoth

In social matters, the mammunthus were very similar to today’s elephants.

The females lived in herds, although there was always one that acted as leader of the group. The younger ones, along with the older ones, were the ones who “nursed” the young. They were always on the lookout for any other animal that might try to attack them.

The males, on the other hand, lived alone or in small groups. When a male reached maturity, he would leave his herd in search of another female to mate. Gestation was also like that of elephants, lasting about 22 months and only bringing in one calf at a time.

They always looked for the best time to mate, as this meant that the babies were born in a milder climate and had a better chance of getting food.

The males fought each other with their fangs to get the female.

Mammoths were always on the move because they needed to find enough food, and they were able to regenerate the area.

The extinction of the mammoth

How did mammoths become extinct?

This question has turned much of the scientific world upside down as there was no consensus on what was causing the disappearance of this species.

Here are the various theories about mammoth extinction:

A cataclysm: As with the dinosaurs, there was speculation that a falling meteorite might have brought about the end of this race. It is already ruled out.

Change of the poles of the planet: It was also considered as a possible reason, however, this hypothesis is also withdrawn.

Great illness

This theory holds that a terrible contagious disease could have wiped out the mammuthus. According to this conjecture, the arrival of humans (with their animals and lifestyle) would have introduced new diseases into that habitat.

These new viruses would have reached the mammoths, and they spread it to each other.

It is important to mention that there is no evidence to support this hypothesis, as no sample has been found in any of the remains found to support this idea.

The human being

Yes, our great-great-grandparents (we should add some more “tatata”) had the privilege of coexisting with these prehistoric animals.

One of the most widely held theories is that humans were responsible for the disappearance of mammoths. The humans dedicated to the hunt of the mammoth in a massive way, would have achieved that, little by little, the race was extinguished.

Critics of this hypothesis maintain that even if humans had hunted intensively, it would not have been enough to make a race extinct.

It also helps that even if humans were armed with spears, hunting specimens several meters long and weighing about 6 tons, precisely, would not have been easy.

Climate change

The Earth’s climate has undergone a dramatic change. The ideal climatic conditions for mammoths were cold and icy. These favoured the appearance of no trees, but an ideal type of vegetation for mammoth feeding.

With climate change, the weather became warmer and more humid. These new conditions would have favoured the appearance of trees, in other words, the reduction of food for mammoths.

Many scientists support this theory and have closed the debate. Others, however, suggest that the combination of temperature change and human hunting is the real reason.

A new theory of disappearance appears in 2015

A team of paleontologists from Tomsk State University (TSU), Siberia, introduces a theory about the reason for the extinction of mammoths.

The disappearance was due to a metabolic problem that radically affected their skeletons.

It seems that the specimens that studied this group showed very serious disorders in their bones and cartilages. In fact, one of the scientists stated that “the articular surfaces of the bones of the extremities of some specimens are not only affected, but practically destroyed.

This metabolic problem meant that the mammoths could not assimilate the minerals, generating a very strong degradation in their bones. It would be the same as osteoporosis, their bones were getting weaker and weaker.

This made bone breakdown very common, leaving the mammoth defenseless against other animals.

According to scientist Sergey Leschinski, this metabolic failure was also aggravated by climate change. The lack of food increased the mineral shortage in the mammoth’s body.

When the prehistoric mammoths became extinct

The extinction of the mammoths did not happen for a few days. It’s estimated that the process of disappearance began about 20,000 years ago.

The last mammoths that existed lived 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island in the Arctic. So it took about 15,000 years for the mammoth to become extinct.

But… what you may not know is that there are people who claim that there are still living mammoths.

And if mammoths were still alive…

Only a few years ago, in 2012, the British newspaper The Sun published that a mammoth had been found alive in Siberia. In fact, a video was published next to the news where a mammoth was seen in the middle of a river.

The truth is that the images were very blurry and the animal was not well appreciated. The farce didn’t last long as it was soon shown that it was all a hoax.

However, there are many people who claim that in the most inhospitable areas of Siberia, mammoths could still be living.

In fact, there are many cases in which people have claimed to have seen a woolly mammoth.

Although the most incredible story about living mammoths happened in 1920. A French consul named Gallon lived in Vladivostock. One day, he met a hunter who had been in the middle of the taiga for several years.

The hunter conveyed to Gallon the following:

In the middle of the hunt, he found a huge footprint carved in the mud. It was about two feet long and about 18 inches wide. He also noticed that it was not round, but oval in shape. He found the footprints of all four legs, the first pair about four meters from the second ones.

The course turned into a forest. On his way he noticed a pile of manure with traces of vegetation (it was not a carnivorous animal) and that there were broken branches at a height of about three meters.

For a few days he followed the trail, until in the middle of some trees he saw it. A huge elephant with big white and very curved tusks.

His shotgun, prepared for bears, would not have been able to kill such a large specimen. The hunter decided to retreat and return to the barracks. According to Gallon, what the hunter had spotted was a mammoth. (Story taken from the book On the trail of the last mammoths. Vicente Vázquez Hernández)

The mammoth hunters

How our ancestors hunted in prehistoric times to catch an animal of such size when they only had spears and stones

We don’t know for sure how our ancestors hunted mammoths, but there are theories as to how they did it.

One option is that they encouraged mammoths to go into ravines or swamps to get trapped there. Once there, it was easier for them to kill them.

Another theory was that prehistoric men were digging huge holes In these holes, they placed spears with their tips upwards and then covered the hole with branches and leaves. Just as before, they tricked the mammoth into the trap.

Other studies claim that dogs were domesticated to help mammoth hunters. The dogs, using barking and growling, would lay siege to the mammoth until it was led into the trap.

In addition to the meat, they made use of the bones and skin. They used the bones to make weapons and keep paintings inside. It’s also likely that the larger ones used them as a structure for the huts.

The fat was used to make the paintings and to create fire.

In an episode of the TV series, Doctor in Alaska, a mammoth appears. The protagonist, a doctor who is forced to work for several years in a small Alaskan village, goes for a walk in the forest one day. Suddenly, he finds the body of a mammoth on a huge piece of ice that is thawing.

The doctor, who considers that he has just made a great paleontological discovery, alerts all the scientific authorities. Instead, when they arrive, the mammoth has disappeared. Everyone takes the doctor for a madman.

Days later, the doctor who is still searching the forest for his lost mammoth hears a noise. Not far from there is a cabin and that noise, was the noise of a power saw. A little grandfather was unhooking the mammoth and putting it in the freezer.

“Palentological discovery”? What a bay, which is very good. I’ve already eaten a few.”

Is it possible to create a cloned mammoth?

It has been widely speculated that it is possible to clone a mammoth. The reality is that the low temperatures of Siberia have allowed many frozen mammoths to be found. Some whole and perfectly preserved.

This high state of preservation has allowed science to study mammoth DNA. This opened the debate: is it possible to clone a mammoth?

The theory on how to do it is as follows. The experiment would involve extracting an entire strand of DNA from the mammoth and fusing it with an Asian elephant egg. After the gestation period, four billion years later, a new mammoth would set foot on Earth.

All these theories challenged several scientists to achieve this.

But the practice is never as simple as the theory. Extracting a whole, quality DNA strand was not so easy.

In 2008, the debate was reopened. A Japanese research team succeeds in cloning a mouse that had been frozen for 16 years. The success was due to the fact that they had discovered that the DNA in some nerve cells of the brain is not damaged despite the years of freezing.

The first hurdle is therefore overcome.

However, pregnancy could also bring problems. It is understood that the gestation period in mammoths is the same as that of elephants, but there are no certainties. If it lasted longer, the female elephant could suffer.

Also, we have to take into account that the mammoth was bigger than an Asian elephant. Would the elephant be able to feed the baby, would it suffer in the delivery? Also, the possibility was considered that even if everything went well the elephant would reject the baby or that the milk itself would not be suitable for the mammoth.

On the other hand, some scientists question whether it is ethical to bring back an animal whose living conditions no longer exist today.

A few years ago, the debate would have been reopened. The remains of Yuka, a mammoth baby about ten years old, had just been found in Siberia. Never before had a mammoth been found in such a state of preservation. She had even preserved part of her fur.

Of course, we won’t know when, but it seems that science is getting closer and closer to creating a Jurassic Park in reality.

Now you tell me, would you like the prehistoric mammoth, the snow giant, to come back to life?