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Woolly Mammoth

mammoths ice tundra species

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was a large mammal that coexisted with early humans. It became extinct at the end of the last ice age, about 10,000 years ago. One of four species of mammoths, woolly mammoths were abundant on the cold tundra that extended beyond the glaciated ice fields of Europe, Asia, and North America. It is unclear whether the extinction of the woolly mammoth was a result of climatic warming at the end of the last ice age, leading to the loss of mammoth habitat, over-hunting by human predators, or a combination of both.

The woolly mammoth belonged to the same family as modern elephants. Standing approximately 11 ft (4 m) tall and weighing 6-8 tons, this animal was well-adapted to the cold tundra, especially compared to the other species of mammoths. The woolly mammoth was so-named because of the thick, long brown fur that covered its entire body, including the ears and trunk. Beneath its fur was a wool undercoat, and layers of fat provided additional insulation from the cold. Its extremities (ears, feet, trunk, and tail) were small in comparison to those of other mammoth Woolly mammoth. Jonathan Blair/Corbis Corporation. Reproduced by permission.
species, to minimize the loss of body heat through its surface. As an herbivore feeding on coarse tundra vegetation, the woolly mammoth had huge specialized teeth and a lower jaw that swung back and forward to shred plants. The woolly mammoth may have used its long, curved ivory tusks to scrape snow from the plants.

Three lines of elephants, the African and Asian elephants and the mammoths, evolved during the Miocene Epoch, about 24 million years ago. Mammoths first appeared in Africa and then spread through Europe and Asia. The woolly mammoth was one of two mammoth species that migrated across the land bridge from Siberia to North America, less than one million years ago. Numerous fossilized bones and teeth of the woolly mammoth have been found across the northern United States and southern Canada. Three woolly mammoths, along with numerous Columbian mammoths, have been found at the Hot Springs sinkhole in South Dakota, where they were trapped and died 26,000 years ago. Bodies of woolly mammoths also have been found preserved in ice, with their last meal of tundra plants still in their stomachs.

In 1999, a 23-ton block of ice, containing a fully-preserved 23,000 year-old male woolly mammoth, was excavated from the permafrost of the Siberian tundra. Scientists plan to move the block to an ice cave, where it will be carefully thawed using hair dryers. This specimen will provide new information about the woolly mammoth and, potentially, woolly mammoth DNA for use in cloning experiments.

Margaret Alic

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