Kids Section — Woolly Mammoths

October 18, 2007 by  


A mammoth is any species of an extinct genus of proboscidean (elephants and their extinct relatives), often with long curved tusks and, in northern species, a covering of long hair. They lived from the Pliocene epoch from 4.8 million years ago to around 4,500 years ago. Mammoth remains have been found in Europe, Africa, Asia, and North America. They are believed to have originally come from North Africa about 4.8 million years ago, during the Pliocene, where bones of Mammuthus africanavus have been found in Chad, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. Mammuthus subplanifrons, found in South Africa and Kenya, is also believed to be one of the oldest species (about 4 million years ago).

Despite their African ancestry, they are in fact more closely related to the modern Asian Elephant than either of the two African elephants (as both Mammuthus and Elephas also originated in Africa). The common ancestor of both mammoths and Asian elephants split from the line of African elephants in the Late Miocene about 6 – 7.3 million years ago, probably due to the uplift of East Africa and increasing aridity in the Middle East.

Around 700,000 years ago, the warm climate of the time deteriorated markedly and the savannah plains of Europe, Asia and North America gave way to colder and less fertile steppes. The southern mammoth consequently declined, being replaced across most of its territory by the cold-adapted steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii). This in turn gave rise to the woolly mammoth, Mammuthus primigenius) around 300,000 years ago.

The woollies were a spectacularly successful species; they ranged from Spain to North America and are thought to have existed in huge numbers. The Russian researcher Sergei Zimov estimates that during the last Ice Age, parts of Siberia may have had an average population density of sixty animals per hundred square kilometres – equivalent to African elephants today Most mammoths died out at the end of the last Ice Age.

Based on studies of their close relatives, the modern elephants, mammoths probably had a gestation period of 22 months, resulting in a single calf being born.

Their social structure was probably the same as that of African and Asian elephants, with females living in herds headed by a matriarch, whilst bulls lived solitary lives or formed loose groups after maturity.

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