The woolly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), also called the tundra mammoth, is an extinct species of mammoth. This animal is known from bones and frozen carcasses from northern North America and northern Eurasia with the best preserved carcasses in Siberia.
This mammoth species was first recorded in (possibly 150,000 years old) deposits of the second last glaciationin Eurasia. They were derived from steppe mammoths (Mammuthus trogontherii). It disappeared from most of its range at the end of the Pleistocene (10,000 years ago), with a dwarfed race still living on Wrangel Island until roughly 1700 BC.
Why are Mammoth’s connected to Siberia?
Indigenous peoples of Siberia had long found what are now known to be woolly mammoth remains, collecting their tusks for the ivory trade. Native Siberians believed these remains to be those of giant mole-like animals that lived underground and died when burrowing to the surface.During the 1600s, reports of these finds would occasionally reach Europe. Europeans generally interpreted the stories based on biblical accounts, as either the remains of behemoths or giants. The word “mammoth” first entered the English language during this same period, derived from the local Russian word for the remains, mammant.
The first woolly mammoth remains studied by Western science were examined by British scientist Hans Sloane in 1728, and consisted of fossilized teeth and tusks from Siberia. Publishing his findings, Sloane became the first to recognize that the remains did not belong to giants or behemoths, but rather to elephants. Sloane turned to another biblical explanation for the presence of elephants in the Arctic: he believed that they had been buried during the biblical Great Flood, and that Siberia had previously been tropical prior to a drastic climate change. Others interpreted Sloane’s conclusion slightly differently, arguing that the flood had carried elephants from the tropics to the arctic.
It was French scientist Georges Cuvier who, in 1796, first identified the woolly mammoth remains not as modern elephants transported to the Arctic, but as an entirely new species. Most significantly, he argued that this species had gone extinct and no longer existed, a concept that was not widely accepted at the time. Following Cuvier’s identification, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach gave the woolly mammoth its scientific name in 1799, Elephas primigenius (placing it in the same genus as the Indian elephant). It was not until 1828 that Joshua Brookes recognized the species was distinct enough to warrant a new genus, and reclassified it as Mammuthus primigenius.
Meanwhile, woolly mammoth remains were also being unearthed for the first time in North America. Mark Catesby noted several large teeth dug up in North Carolina in 1743, which African slaves identified as the molars of an elephant. In 1806, William Clark (on a fossil-hunting expedition ordered by President Thomas Jefferson) collected several woolly mammoth specimens from Kentucky. Interestingly, Jefferson (who famously had a keen interest in paleontology) is also partially responsible for transforming the word “mammoth” from a noun describing the prehistoric elephant to an adjective describing anything amazingly large. The first recorded use of the word as an adjective was in a description of a large wheel of cheese given to Jefferson as a gift.
While frozen mammoth carcasses had been excavated by Westerners as early as 1728 (by German scientist Daniel Messerschmidt), the first mammoth fossil fully documented by modern science was unearthed by a hunter in Siberia during 1799, on the banks of the Lena River. The hunter allowed it to thaw (a process taking several years) until he could retrieve the tusks for sale to the ivory trade in Yakutsk. He then abandoned the specimen, allowing it to largely decay before its recovery, possibly even having been partially devoured by modern wolves.
In 1806, Scottish botanist Mikhail Adams rescued what remained of the specimen and brought it to the Zoological Museum of the Zoological Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersberg for study. The specimen, which became known as the Adams mammoth, was stuffed and mounted, and continues to be on display at the Zoological Institute.
Preserved frozen remains of woolly mammoths, with much soft tissue remaining, have been found in the northern parts of Siberia. This is a rare occurrence, essentially requiring the animal to have been buried rapidly in liquid or semi-solids such as silt, mud and icy water which then froze. This may have occurred in a number of ways. Mammoths may have been trapped in bogs or quicksands and either died of starvation or exposure, or drowning if they sank under the surface. The evidence of undigested food in the stomach and seed pods still in the mouth of many of the specimens suggests that neither starvation nor exposure are likely. The maturity of this ingested vegetation places the time period in autumn rather than in spring when flowers would be expected. The animals may have fallen through ice into small ponds or potholes, entombing them. Many are certainly known to have been killed in rivers, perhaps through being swept away by river floods. In one location, by the Berelekh River in Yakutia in Siberia, more than 9,000 bones from at least 156 individual mammoths have been found in a single spot, apparently having been swept there by the current.
The preserved baby woolly mammoth named Dima.
In 1977, the well-preserved carcass of a 7- to 8-month old baby woolly mammoth, named “Dima”, was discovered. This carcass was recovered from permafrost on a tributary of the Kolyma River in northeastern Siberia. This baby woolly mammoth weighed approximately 100 kg (220 lb) at death and was 104 cm (41 in) high and 115 cm (45 in) long. Radiocarbon dating determined that Dima died about 40,000 years ago. Its internal organs are similar to those of living elephants, but its ears are only one-tenth the size of those of an African elephant of similar age.
In the summer of 1997, a Dolgan family named Jarkov discovered a piece of mammoth tusk protruding from the tundra of the Taymyr Peninsula in Siberia, Russia. In September/October 1999 this 20,380-year-old carcass and 25 tons of surrounding sediment were transported by a Mi-26 heavy lift heliocopter to an ice cave in Khatanga, Taymyr Autonomous Okrug. In October 2000, the careful defrosting operations in this cave began with the use of hairdryers to keep the hair and other soft tissues intact.
In May 2007, the carcass of a six-month-old female woolly mammoth calf named Lyuba was discovered encased in a layer of permafrost near the Yuribei River in Russia where it had been buried for 37,000 years. Alexei Tikhonov, the Russian Academy of Science’s Zoological Institute’s deputy director, has dismissed the prospect of cloning the animal, as the whole cells required for cloning would have burst under the freezing conditions: however, DNA is expected to be well-preserved enough to be useful for research on mammoth phylogeny and perhaps physiology.
To date, thirty-nine preserved bodies have been found, but only four of them are complete. In most cases the flesh shows signs of decay before its freezing and later desiccation. Stories abound about frozen mammoth carcasses that were still edible once defrosted, but the original sources indicate that the carcasses were in fact terribly decayed, and the stench so unbearable that only the dogs accompanying the finders showed any interest in the flesh.
In addition to frozen carcasses, large amounts of mammoth ivory have been found in Siberia. Mammoth tusks have been articles of trade for at least 2,000 years. They have been and are still a highly prized commodity. Güyük, the 13th century Khan of the Mongols, is reputed to have sat on a throne made from mammoth ivory, and even today it is in great demand as a replacement for the now-banned export of elephant ivory.
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