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Brief Summary

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Mammuthus primigenius, or the woolly mammoth, is an extinct species of Proboscidea and is a little larger than modern African elephants (3.5 tonnes). They were sexually dimorphic, which means that they had morphological differences between the sexes. Adult males were about 2.5 - 3.5 m (9 - 11 ft) at the shoulder and could weigh up to 6.6 tonnes. Adult females were a bit smaller and averaged 2.5 - 3 m (8.5 - 9.5 ft) high at the shoulder and could reach 4.4 tonnes. The remains of this fossil elephant are unrivaled and we have mummified examples of the animals that have been entombed within the permafrost of Siberia and North America. Because of this, we know that a newborn M. primigenius calf is about 200 pounds (90 kilograms) and because we have hide and soft tissues preserved, we possess direct evidence that the woolly mammoth was well adapted to the cold environments that it roamed (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).

The fur can vary in appearance from a reddish-orange to black, it is not known whether this is the result of natural variation within a population or some taphonomic process. The soft tissue extremities (such as tails and ears) were highly reduced, when compared to the modern elephant. This feature was an adaptation to conserve precious body heat and prevent cold related injury (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).

M. primigenius had high-crowned teeth packed with numerous enamel ridges that helped them process the tough, grassy vegetation. It was a non-ruminant herbivore with a diet that was high in fiber and low in protein (Guthrie, 2001).

It has large, bowed tusks that can weigh roughly 80 kg and were present in both males and females (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).



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Morphology

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Mammuthus primigenius, or the woolly mammoth, is an extinct species of Proboscidea and is a little larger than modern African elephants. They were sexually dimorphic, which means that they had morphological differences between the sexes. Adult males were about 2.5 - 3.5 m (9 - 11 ft) at the shoulder and could weigh up to 6.6 tons. Adult females were a bit smaller and averaged 2.5 - 3 m (8.5 - 9.5 ft) high at the shoulder and could reach 4.4 tons. The remains of this fossil elephant are remarkably preserved and we have mummified examples of the animals that have been entombed within the permafrost of Siberia and North America. Because of this, we know that a newborn M. primigenius calf is about 200 pounds (90 kilograms) and because we have hide and soft tissues preserved, we possess direct evidence that the woolly mammoth was well adapted to the cold environments that it roamed (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).

The fur can vary in appearance from a reddish-orange to black, it is not known whether this is the result of natural variation within a population or some taphonomic process. It is known that their entire bodies, including the top of the trunk, were covered with this fur. The fur ranged in length from just a single inch in length to over 35 inches (90 cm). The fur had two layers, a short fine hair that formed an insulating layer and coarse outer hairs or guard hairs (Iacumin et al., 2005).

The soft tissue extremities (such as tails and ears) were highly reduced, when compared to the modern elephant. This feature was an adaption to conserve precious body heat and prevent cold related injury (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).

M. primigenius has high-crowned (part of tooth extending above the gum) teeth packed with numerous enamel ridges that helped them process the tough, grassy vegetation. It was a non-ruminant herbivore with a diet that was high in fiber and low in protein (Guthrie, 2001).

It has large, bowed tusks that can weigh roughly 80 kg, which were composed primarily of dentin, and were present in both males and females (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006). Due to the mammoth's more vertically positioned head, an orientation adapted for grazing, battles took place in a way that is very unlike that of modern elephants. In combat, woolly mammoths would make contact with the forehead and the massive tusks, arch inward towards the opponents shoulder region of torso (Guthrie, 2001; Rountrey et al., 2007).

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General Ecology

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Mammuthus primigenius existed in the cold, vast and largely treeless steppes. The arid steppe-tundra was dotted with perennially wet areas, as indicated by the presence of willow (Salix), marsh marigold (Caltha), sedges (Carex), rushes (Juncus) (Guthrie, 2001; Van Geel et al., 2008). M. primigenius had high-crowned teeth (the crown is the portion of the tooth above the gumline) packed with numerous enamel ridges that helped them process the tough, grassy vegetation. It was a non-ruminant herbivore (animals that do not chew cud, like modern horses or elephants) with a diet that was high in fiber and low in protein (Guthrie, 2001).

Isotopic analyses of mammoth hair found preserved within tundra permafrost have found alternating striations of lighter and heavier carbon values. These are thought to represent seasonal variations in the diet of the woolly mammoth, which could be the result of seasonal food availability and migratory patterns (Iacumin et al., 2005). These findings are supported by the environment, as the low plant biomass of the steppe habitat would have been quickly exhausted by groups of such large herbivores. This information seems to lend further credibility to the reality that the woolly mammoth was somewhat nomadic year round or underwent large-scale seasonal migrations (Guthrie, 2001).

Amazing examples of preservation of M. primigenius have been recovered from the Arctic tundra. Mummified remains of juvenile specimens have provided valuable data on the population structure and life history of the species (Kosintsev et al., 2012).

Due to the preserved gut contents found in young woolly mammoths, it is known that the young had to be at least 5 years of age before they were weaned. The harsh environment may have prolonged the nursing period and increased the maternal investment to insure survival of the young. A similar nursing period is seen in the African elephant when under stressful conditions (Rountrey et al., 2007; Kosintsev et al., 2012).

Analyses of M. primigenius gut contents and dung revealed that sedges and grasses were its primary food, but sizable amounts of dwarf willow twigs and a variety of herbs and mosses were also found. The analyses indicate that M. primigenius could live off of grasses, but would fill nutrient gaps by supplementing their diet with woody plants and moss (Van Geel et al., 2008).



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Extinction

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Mammuthus primigenius began to die out in North America and Northern Eurasia roughly 20,000 years ago. The warming climate, which began around 15,000 years ago caused the mammoth's habitat to shrink and disappear. By approximately 10,000 years ago,M. primigenius had completely disappeared from the mainland of Eurasia. However, a place called Wrangel Island, positioned in the Arctic Sea, had a surviving population of mammoths until approximately 4,000 years ago (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).

Whether or not humans caused the extinction of the mammoths has been a matter of debate, it is known that both, neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) and modern humans (Homo sapiens) have hunted the wooly mammoth and exploited it as a food source (Hofreiter & Lister, 2006).

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