The woolly mammoth is only one species of the larger mammoth and elephant ancestral grouping, the proboscideans
. Modern elephant
s, the mammoths and the mastodon
share a common ancester, but originate from separate evolution
ary lines; in other words, while they were physically similar, the woolly mammoth was not a direct ancestor
of the elephant.
The ancestral mammoth species was Mammuthus meridionalis, which evolved into three species which made their way to North America (roughly 1.5 million years ago): the Columbian mammoth (Mammuthus columbi), the pygmy mammoth (M. exilis) and the woolly mammoth (M. primigenius)*. The ancestral mammoth first appeared at the beginning of the pleistocene, while the woolly mammoth, which was the last mammoth species to evolve appeared just prior to the holocene. The best information available suggests that the woolly mammoth was present in North America up until 11 000 years ago.
While the woolly mammoth was smaller than the Columbian, it was still an impressive beast. It measured 3.5 meters at the shoulder, and weighed between 6 and 8 tons. It likely consumed up to 300 kilograms of vegetation daily, and thus spent large amounts of its time foraging. Physically, the woolly mammoth resembled modern elephants, but had smaller ears, larger tusks and was covered in long reddish-brown hair.
There is some dispute in the biological and anthropological literature concerning the extinction of the woolly mammoth. Some scientists believe that the rapid decline and subsequent disappearance of the woolly mammoth after the arrival of humans in North America is evidence that they were likely hunted to extinction. However, during this same time period the continent also underwent major climatic change (retreat of the glaciers) and thus the vegetation available for forage was likely changed and perhaps reduced. Thus, the woolly mammoth may simply have starved to death.
Finally, there is some international controversy surrounding the mammoth at present. With the successful cloning of Dolly, researchers have begun to consider the production of a living woolly mammoth. A number of specimens were preserved not as fossils, but frozen in the Canadian arctic and Siberia. The tissues of these specimens are almost assuredly sufficiently intact to permit cloning, but the ethics of such an act are only now being argued.
Update: 20-08-2002: Japanese scientists are planning to use the legs of a mammoth found in the permafrost
to clone an individual. The plan is to use an elephant as surrogate mother, and the resulting individual would be genetically a mammoth, but have the mitochondria
l DNA of its mother. One has to wonder if this is a good idea ...
Note that the Mammoth
node provides some taxonomic information, particularly in the definition provided by Webster's 1913
, but this is out of date.
This information was complied from a number of online and written sources, but the most comprehensive is likely the Discovery channel web site, at http://www.discovery.com/exp/mammoth/mammoth.html