Saturday, 21 April 2012

The Woolly Mammoth

Greetings Adventurers!

Today we're going to talk about the mighty Woolly Mammoth!

Here is one I drew myself. Many people don't know this but there were many different species of Mammoth, the one pictured above is perhaps the most well known and iconic: Mammuthus primigenius. Found in North America, Europe and Northern Asia during the Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary Period. That is just a technical way to say that it lived 1.8 million years ago until about 3,700 years ago. 

These animals are often thought to be ancestors to the modern Elephants (Asian: Loxodonta maximus & African: Loxodonta africana) but they are actually more of a close cousin. 
Order Proboscidea Evolution

Mammoths lived in a cold environment with little running water and lots of snow. To cope with this climate they had shaggy hair which cold grow up to 50cm long with a shorter woolly coat underneath for insulation. They also had short tails and small ears to minimise heat loss. Their skin was like that of a modern elephant: thick and leathery, with the addition of a 7-8cm thick layer of blubber. One of the defining features of the Mammoth is of course the huge tusks, long and curved they were used for defence and to sweep the snow off the plants they ate. Due to the size and weight of these tusks, Mammoths developed a muscular support at the back of their head giving rise to the distinctive hump above the shoulders which may also have contained a fat store. Mammoths also had a distinctive shape to the tip of their trunk, they were bi-lobed, meaning the two tips were the same length, whereas modern elephants have one lobe which is much bigger than the other. How do we know so much? Mummified remains of course!

Mummified mammoths are more common than you would believe. Due to the terrain in which they lived it would seem that conditions were perfect for mummification. Most are found in the permafrost in Siberia.

Why did they go extinct?
A question many have been asking, and as yet nobody can say for sure. It was most likely a combination of climate change and our own wonderful ancestors the early Hominids. Being so well adapted to one environment can be a disaster when it begins to change, and then a relatively small primate learns to hunt you quite effectively and it's not long before the mammoths begin to disappear.

I hope that this has been interesting as well as informative (and correct). If you would like to know more details about this subject then here are a few papers and books:

  • Species specific responses of Late Quaternary megafauna to climate and humans. Nature 479, 359-365. 2011 Lorenzen, E.D. et al.
  • Last straw versus Blitzkrieg overkill: Climate-Driven changes in the Arctic Siberian mammoth population and the Late Pleistocene extinction problem. Quaternary Science Reviews 30, 2309-2328. 2011 Nikolskiy, P.A. et al.
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Human Evolution. Cambridge University Press, UK. 1992.
See you next time!

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