An Ultimate Guide to the Woolly Mammoth: The Tusked Titan

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NameWoolly mammothDietHerbivorous
Name MeaningImmensely large, hugeHeight2.67 to 3.49 m (8.8 to 11.5 ft)
Pronunciationwu-lee ma-muhthLength2.8 to 3.8 m (9.2 to 12.4 ft)
EraCenozoic – QuaternaryWeight6,800 to 8,000 kig (15,000 to 18,000 lbs)
ClassificationMammalia, Proboscidea, & ElephantidaeLocationNorth America, Eurasia

Woolly Mammoth Pictures

Artwork of the Woolly Mammoth
Artwork of the Woolly Mammoth | MARK GARLICK via GettyImages

The Woolly Mammoth

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Woolly Mammoth Concept
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Woolly Mammoth Concept

A close relative of modern elephants once roamed the grassy steppe of the Northern Hemisphere during the Pleistocene and Holocene epochs. 

The now-extinct woolly mammoth was one of the largest land mammals in North America, Northern Asia, and Europe during this period. 

This elephant relative was similar in size to modern elephants but had several remarkable adaptations, such as a thick coat of fur and long imposing tusks. 

Many of the differences in their appearance compared to modern elephants are adaptations to help them survive in the cold, harsh ecosystem where they live. 

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is sometimes referred to as the Northern or Siberian mammoth. 

Woolly mammoths were quite abundant in various parts of the Northern Hemisphere for more than half a million years. 

Woolly Mammoth herd walking near the Somme River in France
Woolly Mammoth herd walking near the Somme River in France | Charles R. Knight via Wikipedia Public Domain

But they were eventually reduced to isolated populations about 10,000 years ago before eventually going extinct. 

The woolly mammoth is one of the best-known prehistoric animals. 

This is because several frozen carcasses of this elephant have been found across various locations in North America. 

In addition to these well-preserved fossils, woolly mammoths lived alongside humans, and accounts of their lives are preserved in prehistoric cave paintings and other past relics. 

In this article, we’ll detail some of the most notable facts about Mammuthus primigenius

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Gage Beasley’s Prehistoric Shirt Collection
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Physical Characteristics

Gage Beasley Prehistoric's Woolly Mammoth Size Comparison Chart
Gage Beasley Prehistoric’s Woolly Mammoth Size Comparison Chart

Woolly mammoths resembled modern elephants in terms of their size and general body shape. 

They had a thickset, barrel-shaped body with a massive head and a relatively short neck. 

Although they’re often depicted as impressively large creatures, the woolly mammoths weren’t particularly bigger than modern elephants. 

They exhibited sexual dimorphism, with males being bigger than females. 

Fully-grown woolly mammoth males had an average shoulder height of about 2.67 to 3.49 meters (8.8 to 11.5 feet).

This is similar to the average size of the male African elephants. 

Their average body length is about 2.8 to 3.8 meters (9.2 to 12.4 feet), and they weigh roughly nine tons. 

Females weighed about half of that. 

They were slightly smaller, with an average shoulder height of about 2.6 to 2.9 meters (8.5–9.5 feet). 

Woolly mammoths were the smallest of all mammoths. 

A Columbian mammoth for comparison
A Columbian mammoth for comparison | NaturalWorldLover via Animals Wiki

Other mammoth species that evolved earlier, such as the Columbian mammoth and southern mammoth, were significantly bigger. 

Arguably, the most iconic feature of the woolly mammoth was its long, shaggy coat of fur—a feature seen in several other ice-age mammals. 

The fur is often depicted with a reddish-brown color but was probably a different color when the animal was alive. 

Their fur was most likely darker than the preserved form, and the density would have varied during different seasons of the year. 

The thick fur coat helped them withstand the extreme cold of the tundra where they lived. 

Fur in Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna
Fur in Naturhistorisches Museum, Vienna | Mammuthus via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

But they had other physical adaptations that may have helped them with the cold. 

For instance, woolly mammoths had smaller ears compared to their living relatives. 

They also had thick skin, and a layer of fat underneath helped to repel the cold and keep them warm. 

Like modern elephants, woolly mammoths had long tusks that extended from their upper jaws. 

The tusks, which were modifications of their upper incisors, were more curved compared to those of modern elephants. 

These tusks had an average length of about 2.4 to 2.7 meters (7.9 to 8.9 feet) and weighed up to 45 kilograms (99 pounds). 

Male tusk with signs of wear
Male tusk with signs of wear | Sebastian J. Pfeifer et al. via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 4.0

It served various purposes, including digging for vegetation, defending against predators, and possibly in mating displays.

Habitat and Distribution

The woolly mammoth was one of the most notable Pleistocene megafauna, with a range that stretched from northern Eurasia to North America. 

Fossils of this prehistoric elephant have been recovered from various parts of Europe, Asia, and North America.

Woolly mammoths were ideally adapted to the treeless tundra regions of these continents. 

The tundra, sometimes called mammoth tundra, was characterized by sparse vegetation, including cold-resistant grasses, sedges, and other low-lying plants. 

They also lived in grasslands; some populations may have lived in forested areas, especially in parts of the present-day midwestern United States. 

Woolly mammoths were well-suited to cold, subarctic, and arctic environments. 

The Pleistocene Epoch was characterized by a series of glacial and interglacial periods, collectively known as the Ice Age or Quaternary glaciation. 

Life restoration of fauna during the Pleistocene epoch in northern Spain
Life restoration of fauna during the Pleistocene epoch in northern Spain | Mauricio Antón via Wikipedia CC BY 2.5

During the glacial phases, ice sheets covered significant portions of Europe, North America, and Asia. 

This led to cooler temperatures, lower sea levels, low vegetation cover, and other icy conditions that woolly mammoths and other ice-age animals were well-adapted to.

Behavior and Diet

Given their size, the woolly mammoths were probably slow, lumbering animals, but they were also capable of occasional bursts of speed. 

Like modern elephants, they walked slowly on their toes and had large, fleshy pads behind the toes to cushion their feet as they moved. 

The soles of the woolly mammoth’s feet also had cracks that helped in gripping surfaces during locomotion.

Well preserved leg along with the sole from a notable specimen named Yukagir
Well preserved leg along with the sole from a notable specimen named Yukagir | synchroswimr via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

Like their modern relatives, woolly mammoths were primarily herbivores with a diet that consisted of grasses, sedges, herbs, and shrubs. 

They were adapted to graze on these tough, fibrous vegetation, which were the main food sources available in their habitat. 

This may have been supplemented with herbs, flowering plants, mosses, and tree matter found in their habitat occasionally. 

The mammoth had four functional molar teeth for processing their food. 

The teeth got worn out fast and were replaced at least six times throughout their lifetime.

Molar from Font de Champdamoy, France
Molar from Font de Champdamoy, France | Remi Mathis via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

The long tusks of these mammoths would have been useful for digging under snow to uncover shrubs and grasses. 

They also had a muscular trunk that worked like an extra limb for manipulating objects and getting food into their mouth. 

The trunk had a two-fingered tip, which was probably effective for picking up short grasses by wrapping around them, 

Woolly mammoths spent up to 20 hours of their day eating. 

A 6-ton adult would have had to eat 180 kilograms (397 pounds) of food daily to support their massive size. 

To access fresh grazing areas, woolly mammoths would have had to migrate seasonally. 

They would follow the availability of vegetation, moving to more temperate regions during the winter and returning to the tundra and grasslands in the summer.

Woolly mammoths lived in small family groups or herds. 

A small herd of Woolly Mammoths
A small herd of Woolly Mammoths | Aunt_Spray via iStock

Like their extant relatives, mammoth herds consisted mainly of females and their young. 

Adult males were mostly solitary, joining the herds only during the breeding season. 

Woolly mammoth herds communicated extensively using vocalizations such as trumpeting, rumbling sounds, and physical displays. 

Life Cycle

The life cycle of a woolly mammoth is comparable to that of modern elephants, with females generally maturing earlier than males. 

They reproduced sexually during specific mating seasons. 

The mating season for woolly mammoths was probably between summer and autumn of every year. 

During mating season, males became more aggressive, with heightened testosterone levels.

They probably competed for the right to mate with females. 

A pair of Woolly mammoths fighting for dominance
A pair of Woolly mammoths fighting for dominance | Aunt_Spray via iStock

After mating, female woolly mammoths carry their offspring in the womb for a long gestation period. 

Their gestation period is comparable to that of elephants.

One calf (sometimes two) was typically born during the spring or summer season about 22 months later. 

Newborn woolly mammoths weighed about 100 kilograms (220 pounds), making them larger than most adult mammals. 

The juveniles were completely dependent on their mother, who provided essential care, nutrient-rich milk, and protection from predators.

Young woolly mammoths nursed for at least three years. 

As they grew, their diet gradually changed from a full milk-based diet to a plant-based diet at about two or three years old. 

As they grew, mammoth calves may have also eaten fecal matter from the mother to promote the development of intestinal microbes needed to digest vegetation. 

The calf "Lyuba", in Royal BC Museum and IFC Mall
The calf “Lyuba”, in Royal BC Museum and IFC Mall | Bid4sid via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Woolly mammoth calves were born without tusks but developed small milk tusks at about six months old. 

These small tusks were only a few centimeters long and were replaced by permanent tusks about a year later. 

The tusk would continue to grow throughout the mammoth’s life, but the growth rate tends to slow down as the animal reaches adulthood. 

The average lifespan of a woolly mammoth has been estimated to be about 60 years. 

Male mammoths continue to grow until they’re about 40 years while females stop growing at 25. 

Their dentition also changed as they grew. 

At 6 to 12 months, the second set of molar teeth start to develop and replace the first set completely by the time they’re 18 months old. 

The third set lasts longer (about ten years), and the sixth one typically emerges when the mammoth is about 30 years old. 

Mandibles and lower molars
Mandibles and lower molars | Thomas Quine via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0

Adult mammoths typically die when the last set of molars becomes worn out. 

The mammoth would be unable to chew its food and would eventually die of starvation. 

Despite their impressive adaptations, the harsh spring and winter months have the highest mortality rate for both adults and juvenile woolly mammoths. 

Evolution and History

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) is part of the larger group known as proboscideans, which includes elephants, mammoths, mastodons, and several other extinct relatives.

Proboscideans evolved in the region around the prehistoric Tethys Sea about 55 million years ago. 

Collage of extant Proboscideans
Collage of extant Proboscideans | Yathin S Krishnappa via Wikipedia CC BY 2.5

They evolved from the same common ancestors as hyraxes and modern sirenians such as manatees and dugongs. 

The family Elephantidae, which includes modern elephants and their extinct relatives like the mammoths, emerged in Africa about six million years ago. 

Mammoths are distantly related to the popular mastodons (Mammutidae family) but belong to two separate families. 

The families Elephantidae (elephants and mammoths) and Mammutidae (mastodons) diverged about 25 million years ago. 

This was long before the mammoths evolved.

Mammoths (Genus Mammuthus) broke away from the same common ancestor as modern Asian elephants about six million years ago. 

The woolly mammoth is one of the youngest members of this group. 

It evolved from the steppe mammoth (Mammuthus trogontherii) about 800,000 years ago. 

Phylogenetic tree of the elephants and mammoths as of 2010
Phylogenetic tree of the elephants and mammoths as of 2010 | Rohland N et al. via Wikipedia CC BY 2.5

Woolly mammoths first evolved in Asia, from where they spread to Europe about 200,000 years ago. 

They also crossed from Asia to North America across the Bering Land Bridge about 125,000 years ago.

The extinction of the woolly mammoth took place over a duration of several thousand years. 

Their population began to decline significantly during the Quaternary extinction, which started about 40,000 years ago. 

Several other Pleistocene megafauna (including the related Columbian mammoth, cave lions, Arctic fox, and woolly rhinoceros) began to disappear around this time, too. 

By 14,000 to 11,500 years ago, only isolated populations of these large animals were present across their range. 

Scientists say a combination of climate change and habitat loss was the major cause of their extinction. 

Pressures from hunting humans may have contributed to their decline as well. 

A depiction of an early female human with her prey
A depiction of an early female human with her prey | Daniel Eskridge via iStock

Evidence suggests that some small populations of woolly mammoths persisted in the remote areas of Alaska, the Bering Sea, and other Arctic Islands until about 4,300 years ago.

However, continued environmental pressures and a lack of genetic diversity eventually led to their extinction. 

Interactions With Other Species

The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius) was one of the most important species in the tundra ecosystems where it lived. 

As the largest herbivores around, the grazing and browsing activities of these mammoths would have had a significant impact on the vegetation in their habitat. 

Woolly mammoths consumed large quantities of plant materials, meaning their presence shaped the composition of the plant communities and the overall biodiversity of the ecosystem.

A herd of Woolly mammoths grazing
A herd of Woolly mammoths grazing | 2021bss via Ultima Wiki

They shared the same habitat with other herbivores, such as prehistoric bison, rhinoceros, and horses.

These species likely competed for access to similar food sources, which could have influenced their distribution and behavior, especially when food and other resources were in short supply. 

Woolly mammoths lived in perilous times and would have faced off regularly with various predators, including saber-toothed cats, cave lions, and wolves. 

Although their size and long tusks would have helped to intimidate attackers, the predators in their habitat were also well-adapted to hunting large prey. 

Fully-grown mammoths could defend themselves, but calves and weakened or isolated individuals were vulnerable to predation. 

A juvenile Woolly mammoth that has fallen prey to a sabertooth
A juvenile Woolly mammoth that has fallen prey to a sabertooth | CoreyFord via iStock

These interactions between mammoths and their predators would have contributed to the overall balance of their ecosystem.

Cultural Significance

The woolly mammoth is one of the most well-known prehistoric animals. 

This is partly because of how relatively recently they lived but also due to the abundance of fossil remains discovered so far. 

Many woolly mammoth remains have been recovered from permafrost in excellent preservation conditions. 

Head of the Yukagir mammoth
Head of the Yukagir mammoth | Stacy via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0

In fact, these carcasses are so well-preserved that mammoth meat has been fed to sled dogs in the past. 

Woolly mammoths also interacted extensively with prehistoric humans. 

Consequently, they’re often mentioned in the art and mythology of many indigenous cultures around the world. 

This prehistoric mammal is common in ancient cave paintings and carvings, such as those found in the Lascaux Cave in France and the Yana Rhinoceros Horn Site in Russia. 

These depictions suggest that the mammoth held symbolic importance to early human societies.

They were hunted by early humans during the Paleolithic Period, mainly for food and clothing. 

The woolly fur of this large elephant was also used for shelter. 

Reconstructed hut based on mammoth remains
Reconstructed hut based on mammoth remains | Nandaro via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0

Experts think hunting activities may have contributed to the decline of the woolly mammoths and their eventual extinction. 

In more recent times, fossil mammoth ivory used to be very popular and was exported from Siberia to China and Europe for their ornamental properties. 

Due to its popularity, the woolly mammoth frequently appears in literature, films, documentaries, and other pop culture materials about prehistoric times. 

One of the most notable examples is the movie “Ice Age,” which has a family of mammoths as the main characters.

Manny the mammoth as seen on Ice Age
Manny the mammoth as seen on Ice Age | Macrauchenia via Ice Age Wiki

Given the excellent preservation state of woolly mammoth remains, this prehistoric elephant has been an interesting subject of various scientific research. 

Fossil mammoths provide valuable insights into the Pleistocene environment, climate, and ecosystem dynamics. 

More recently, there have been growing conversations in the scientific world about the possibility of reviving prehistoric animals through cloning and other de-extinction methods. 

The woolly mammoth is one of the top candidates for such attempts because of the excellent state of ancient DNA recovered from their mummified remains. 


Mammoths are distant relatives of modern elephants that lived in the grasslands and tundra of North America and Eurasia during the Pleistocene Epoch. 

They were about the same size as their modern relatives but showed a wide range of adaptations that aided their survival in the cold, harsh ecosystem where they lived. 

Woolly mammoths are famous for their thick coat of fur, thick skin, and long tusks. 

They were herbivores adapted to a diet of tough grass, shrubs, and other tundra vegetation.

Several woolly mammoth remains have been recovered from ice, many of them with soft tissues and even stomach content preserved. 

These well-preserved remains have allowed us to learn a lot about these prehistoric elephants and the ecosystem they lived in. 

Scientists have also been able to collect and sequence woolly mammoth DNA, which may help us bring them back from extinction someday in the future. 


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