Woolly Mammoths were true elephants, unlike their less robust cousins, the mastodons. Mammoths were bigger — both in girth and height — weighing in at a max of 13 tonnes. They are closely related to Asian elephants and were about the size of the African elephants you see roaming the grasslands of Africa today. Their size offered protection against other predators once the mammoth was full grown. Sadly for the juveniles, they offered tasty prey to big cats like Homotherium who roamed those ancient grasslands alongside them.
They roamed widely in the Pliocene to Holocene, roaming much of Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. We see them first some 150,000 years ago from remains in Russia then expanding out from Spain to Alaska. They enjoyed a very long lifespan of 60-80 — up to 20 years longer than a mastodon and longer than modern elephants. They enjoyed the prime position as the Apex predator of the megafauna, then declined — partially because of the environment and food resources and partially because of their co-existence with humans. In places where the fossil record shows a preference for hunting smaller prey, humans and megafauna do better together. We see this in places like the Indian Subcontinent where primates and rodents made the menu more often than the large megafauna who roamed there. We also see this in present-day Africa, where the last of the large and lovely megafauna show remarkable resilience in the face of human co-existence.
The woolly mammoths from the Ukrainian-Russian plains died out 15,000 years ago. This population was followed by woolly mammoths from St. Paul Island in Alaska who died out 5,600 years ago — and quite surprisingly, at least to me, the last mammoth died just 4,000 years ago in the frosty ice on the small island of Wrangel in the Arctic Ocean — their final days spent scratching out a dwindling existence of genetic mutations, howling winds, rain-darkened hills and subsistence on tough grasses grown in thin soil.
Can we bring them back? Well, maybe. There have been great strides in genetic engineering so my guess is that we one day will.
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