The Rise, Fall, and Possible Rise of the Wooly Mammoth

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Podcast transcript

Thousands of years ago, enormous furry elephants roamed the northern latitudes of Europe, Asia, and North America. 

While these animals are now extinct, they were actually around much more recently than most people realize, and because of where and when they existed, we know a shocking amount about them. 

Learn more about Mammuthus primigenius, aka the wooly mammoth, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.

It is really too bad that the wooly mammoth has gone extinct because they would have been amazing animals to see. 

The wooly mammoths are close relatives to modern elephants. Both mammoths and elephants belong to the same family: Elephantidae. Today, there are only two species of elephants on Earth, the African and Asian elephants. However, hundreds of thousands of years ago there were many more species of mammoths and elephants on the planet. 

In particular, there was at least one species of mammoth that roamed on the Asian steppes. 

The wooly mammoth was a branch of the steppe mammoth which developed adaptations for colder, northern climates. 

According to DNA analysis of the wooly mammoth, its closest living relative would be the Asian elephant.  More on its DNA in a bit.

So, what exactly is the difference between a wooly mammoth and a modern elephant?

The most obvious difference is the amount of hair, which is the reason why it is called a wooly mammoth. 

Modern elephants have very little hair because they live in tropical latitudes. Many of the adaptations of Asian and African elephants are designed to cool their bodies and dissipate heat. Hair would just increase insulation and is pretty useless when it is hot.

Wooly Mammoths had a very thick layer of long hair with a shorter layer of hair underneath. The closest thing I can compare it to would be a musk ox today. 

Fun fact, musk ox fur, known as qiviut, makes for some of the warmest knitted clothes in the world. I visited a musk ox sanctuary once in Alaska where they collect the fur that gets shed every spring. They would then use it to knit hats. It is extremely light, extremely warm, and extremely expensive.

In addition to their hair, wooly mammoths had other adaptions as well. Their ears were much smaller than modern elephants. The reason why tropical elephants have large ears is to there is more surface area for them to dissipate heat. They serve as radiators. 

Likewise, wooly mammoths had smaller ears to preserve heat, and avoid frostbite. 

By the same token, the tail of a wooly mammoth was also smaller to preserve heat and avoid frostbite. However, their tails did have very long strands of hair which were probably used to swat flies. 

Beyond hair, the other major difference was the size of their tusks. Wooly mammoths had enormous, curved tusks. They were so large and curved that they couldn’t have been used for piercing. It is believed that they might have been used for sparring with other mammoths for mates and territory, defending from predators, and manipulating objects. 

Another more subtle difference was the hump which was found above the shoulders of a wooly mammoth. This was a large fat deposit that was used as an energy store during the winter, and also for insulation. 

Wooly mammoths also had a unique cobra-like hood at the tip of their trunk. It is believed that this might have been used for manipulating objects, to close their tusk to preserve heat, or perhaps to melt snow or ice so they could drink water in the winter.

An adult wooly mammoth would have been about the same size, or slightly larger than a modern African elephant. 

We also know that, like elephants, they were herbivores. Their diet consisted mostly of grass, sedges, moss, as well as other plants and shrubs. 

All of these facts about wooly mammoths are interesting, but to be honest they aren’t the most interesting thing about them. What is really interesting is how we know all of this stuff. 

While wooly mammoths are extinct, they aren’t extinct in the same way that dinosaurs are extinct. 

Dinosaurs died millions of years ago and all we really have to go on are fossiled skeletons. In the case of wooly mammoths we aren’t studying fossils, we are studying actual wooly mammoths. 

Because of how recently they went extinct, and the fact that they would have died in very cold latitudes, we have found many fully intact mammoths which were frozen solid. That means we have full samples of their hair, muscles, and DNA. 

We know what they ate because we have literally been able to find food in their digestive tracts in various stages. Not only that but in one mammoth which was found in Siberia, they found fecal matter in the digestive tract. 

That is interesting because elephants exhibit similar behavior. They do it to ingest microbes for their gut biome. That is a type of detail that would be impossible to know for almost any other extinct species. 

We know that mammoth calves were birthed in the spring or summer, which is not at all surprising. 

We also know that baby mammoths were probably weaned on milk for 2 to 3 years before being transitioned over to eating plants. 

So when did the wooly mammoths die out? It is believed that the last wooly mammoth probably died about 4,000 years ago on Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean, in what is today Russia. 

That means that the pyramids in Egypt were already 500 years old when the last mammoth died. 

There was a great deal of overlap between humans and mammoths. In fact, mammoths are the third most common animal depicted in cave art after horses and bison. There have been over 500 wooly mammoth drawings made by humans which have been found that were created between 11,500 to 35,000 years ago.

It isn’t hard to see why early humans loved to hunt mammoths. A single mammoth could probably feed 30 people for two weeks. That is on top of the usefulness of the hide, bones, and ivory. 

Over 70 huts made almost exclusively of mammoth bones, tusks, and hides have been found in Europe. The tusks were used to form an opening for the hut, whereas the large bones formed the foundation, and it was then covered by skins. 

The age of the bones found in these huts can vary by over 1,000 years, which means that humans were probably scavenging older bones, as well as using bones from hunting.

There is evidence of humans hunting them with spears, but there are also cave images of them falling into traps, as well as evidence of humans scavenging kills made by other animals. 

Frozen mammoth carcasses have been known and documented for centuries. There were enough bodies that have been found that mammoth meat was something that people in Siberia would sometimes claim to eat if they happened upon it. 

In fact, supposedly at a 1951 banquet at the Explorers Club in New York, the members were notified after the fact that they had been served mammoth meat. 

Today, there is still a black market for wooly mammoth ivory. There have been rumors that a massive wooly mammoth tusk can fetch as much as $1,000,000 in China. 

So, why did the wooly mammoth die out? There are many theories as to why the mammoth went extinct. 

One is that they were hunted to extinction by humans. There certainly might be some truth to this, however, we know that mammoths were on some islands in the Arctic with few or no humans, and those populations also went extinct. 

The other leading theory is that the climate changed. Something happened with the ending of the most recent glaciation which changed the habitat of the mammoth. 

Yet another theory based on DNA samples is that there could have been genetic mutations that cropped up, especially after the population had gotten very small. 

With all this talk of intact wooly mammoth DNA and tissue samples, you might be thinking the same thing that many scientists are thinking: could we possibly bring back the wooly mammoth? 

The answer is that we probably can’t do it today, but there are people who are thinking about it and working on it. 

In 2021 15 million dollars was raised by a company called Colossal to attempt to do it. 

The first attempt might not be a literal clone of a wooly mammoth, but rather some sort of hybrid of a mammoth and an Asian elephant. 

The hope is that if they could bring back the wooly mammoth, of which we have probably more DNA than for any other extinct animal, we might be able to do it for other species.

There are a lot of problems that need to be solved before anything of this happens. There have never been live eggs taken from an elephant before, nor has an elephant in vitro fertilization ever been tried before, just to name a few of the hurdles which would need to be overcome.

There are many people who are against doing this on ethical grounds. Also, they aren’t entirely sure that it would work even if we could bring mammoths back. The upper latitudes where they once lived are now mostly moss and not grassland like they used to be.

The forces which killed the mammoths might very well prevent them from running wild again. 

There are probably still thousands of wooly mammoth remains waiting to be discovered underneath the surface in Siberia and Alaska. As they are discovered, we might learn even more about these formerly majestic creatures.

If we are able to overcome several scientific hurdles, it just might be possible to one day take a trip to Paleolithic Park.


The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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